Brian Salter's Blogs:
Serenading the Floozie With a Little Light Music


One of the nice things about being a father is the way one can bask in the reflected glory of one’s offspring having done something well, in the full knowledge that though they may well have bust a gut in getting it done, very little if any work has had to be expended by oneself.

Such was the feeling I had recently when invited to attend a concert by the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, in which my little girl (oh, OK, maybe she’s not so little any more!) has been playing cello since time immemorial.

The concert was being held in the 520-seat Adrian Boult Hall in the Birmingham Conservatoire – another warm feeling generated as I actually played under the baton of the late conductor when I were but a lad (which, believe it or not, I was once!).

[An aside, BTW. The Adrian Boult Hall is within spitting distance of Birmingham’s Victoria Square, where – apart from the fact that in the depths of winter it is laid out with one of the biggest ‘German Markets’ outside Germany (where you can get yourself a mean HotDog - heiß Hündchen??? – and a cup of Glühwein for warming up those hard-to-reach places!) – …

… it also features a particularly horrid fountain arrangement officially called The River, but locally better known as the Floozie in the Jacuzzi.

Amazingly it was the winner in an international design competition held for a central water feature in the square, which was won by Dhruva Mistry. Construction commenced in 1992 and was completed in 1994, when the square was officially reopened by Diana, Princess of Wales. One can only wonder at what the designs that didn’t make it to the judges’ hearts can possibly have been like! The River features a 1.75-tonne bronze statue of a woman, 2.8 metres tall, 2.5 m wide and 4 m long; and the surrounding pool is paved with sandstone. ]

On the programme was a selection of light music, well calculated to appeal to a broad range of musical tastes. I knew straight away that I was going to enjoy this concert as they were playing some of the pieces that I too had played in another orchestra all those millennia ago.

To my mind, at least, Eric Coates was undoubtedly the 'uncrowned king of light music'. He was born in 1886 in a small mining town in the Nottinghamshire coal fields and following study at the Royal Academy of Music in London, he became principal viola of the Queen's Hall Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood. He also played under Elgar, German, Delius, Richard Strauss, Debussy and Beecham, to name but a few. In 1919, after contracting neuritis in his left hand, Eric Coates turned exclusively to composition.

Over the next decade, he developed a distinctive style which embraced his own use of newly-introduced American syncopated rhythms. It immediately caught the British public’s imagination and many of his pieces became the signature tunes of popular BBC programmes, such as ‘Knightsbridge’ which introduced In Town Tonight’; By the Sleep Lagoon which announced Desert Island Discs; and Sailing By, used before the late night shipping forecasts – all musical treats I used to love hearing day after day, week after week, working in BBC Radio 4.

Here is the BPO’s rendition of the Three Bears Suite, written in 1926. Listen carefully and you can almost hear Baby Bear crying out Who’s been stealing my porridge!

One composer who was represented at this concert, whom I have to admit I had never even heard of, was an American called Don Gillis who lived from 1912 until 1978. The composition for which he gained most recognition apparently was his orchestral Symphony No. 5½: A Symphony for Fun.

Having graduated from Texas State University in 1935, he later moved to become producer for the NBC Symphony Orchestra during the tenure of its conductor Arturo Toscanini. Despite his administrative responsibilities, Gillis was a prolific composer, writing ten orchestral symphonies, tone poems, piano concertos, rhapsodies and string quartets. He also composed a wide variety of band music.

His Symphony No. 5½, A Symphony for Fun, was originally performed by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra during a September 21, 1947, broadcast concert that Gillis also produced.

Gillis’ music drew upon popular material, particularly emphasizing jazz, which he considered a revitalizing element in American music.

Here’s the BPO performing part of the 2nd and 3rd movements of Symphony No. 5½.

Another of my favourite light music composers is Leroy Anderson (1908-1975). Many of his works were made famous by the Boston Pops Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Fiedler.

One thing I never knew was that Anderson was born in America to Swedish parents and spoke English and Swedish during his youth and eventually became fluent in Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, German, French, Italian, and Portuguese. Not only did he study music at Harvard University, but also got a PhD in German and Scandinavian languages. Wow. Quite a guy!

His musical pieces and recordings made during the fifties conducting a studio orchestra were immense commercial successes. (Blue Tango was the first instrumental recording ever to sell one million copies.) His most famous pieces are probably "Sleigh Ride", "The Syncopated Clock" and “The Typewriter”, which are instantly recognizable to millions of people. Apparently Anderson would occasionally appear on the Boston Pops regular concerts on PBS Radio to conduct his own music while Fiedler would sit on the sidelines. For "The Typewriter" Fiedler would don a green eyeshade, roll up his sleeves, and mime working on an old typewriter while the orchestra played.

One of my favourite pieces by Anderson is Buglers Holiday (which is not only spelt without an apostrophe, for some reason, but is also played by three trumpeters!) Here’s the BPO performing it, with the three solo trumpeters doing a sterling job – though I would gladly have throttled the girl who was badly laying down the beat on the side drum and the conductor who did nothing to correct her!

And now, another Leroy Anderson piece for you. This one, called Plink, Plank, Plunk! was written in 1951.

Chicken Reel was yet another item by Leroy Anderson played by the BPO. This piece dates from 1946.

Calling All Workers is another piece of music that takes me back to my childhood. It was the signature tune of a programme called Music While You Work which was a daytime radio programme of continuous live popular music broadcast twice daily on week days from June 1940 until September 1967 by the BBC, initially on the Forces / General Forces Programme, and after the war on the BBC Light Programme as well as, in the mornings, on the BBC’s Home Service.

By playing non-stop popular / light music at an even tempo it aimed to help factory workers become more productive. It was aimed first and foremost at the factories, and strict rules were applied: predominantly familiar pieces, nothing lethargic, consistent volume, avoidance of overloud drumming (which could sound like gunfire during the war years), and generally cheerful programmes to which workers could whistle or sing. Music While You Work was discontinued in 1967 when the Light Programme metamorphosed into BBC Radio 2.

Finally, a musical number guaranteed to get the audience to leave the concert hall humming or whistling their way home as they meandered their way past the Floozie. Surely everyone must know the rousing Tum tum tum tum tiddle tum tum of Eric Coates’ Dam Busters March!