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ClassicsOnline Home » TORCH: London Transport Suite / Petit Valse / Barbecue
Sidney Torch (1908-1990)
Sidney Torch, MBE, distinguished himself in two musical spheres. In his early years he gained a reputation as a brilliant cinema organist, but in the second half of his career he switched to composing and conducting Light Music, with even greater success.
He was born Sidney Torchinsky of Russian parents, in East London in 1908. His father, an orchestral trombonist, decided to anglicise the family name, and it was he who introduced his son to the rudiments of music. Young Sidney studied piano at the Blackheath Conservatoire, where he soon displayed evidence of an unusually retentive memory. As he entered an examination room he discovered, to his horror, that he had left behind at his home in Maida Vale all the compulsory music. He had no alternative but to play from memory, and passed the exam with distinction. He shared the same professor for piano tuition as Gerald Bright, later to achieve fame in Britain as the band-leader Geraldo.
Clearly Torch must have been a talented pianist, because his first professional engagement was as accompanist to the celebrated violinist Albert Sandler. He then moved into several cinema orchestras playing for silent films, starting at stratford Broadway in East London, but the arrival of the talkies forced him to consider a musical change of direction. Full orchestras were no longer needed in cinemas, and even such prestigious ensembles such as Emanuel Starkey's orchestra at the Regal, Marble Arch, (in which Torch also played piano) had to go. But every picture palace of note decided to install an organ and the Regal was no exception; a Christie was built in 1928 by the famous London firm of Hill, Norman and Beard. At the time it was the largest theatre organ outside the United States.
Torch became assistant organist to Quentin Maclean at the Regal, Marble Arch, taking over this famous Christie Organ (following a short residency by Reginald Foort) full time from 1932 to 1934. His signature tune became, appropriately, the popular song "I've Got To Sing a Torch Song" (from the Hollywood film "Gold Diggers of 1933") to which he added his own special lyrics.
From Marble Arch Torch moved on to the Regal, Edmonton, leaving in 1936 to join Union Cinemas, opening many new organs and recording at their flagship theatre, the Regal Kingston. In 1937 he opened the magnificent Wurlitzer Organ at the Gaumont State, Kilburn, which was then the largest cinema organ in England.
Torch was a real 'star' of the cinema organ in those pre-World War II days. Through his many personal appearances, broadcasts and commercial recordings he had reached the very top of his profession. In 1940 he was called into the Royal Air Force, and initially was stationed near Blackpool, where he continued to record at the Opera House. He first trained as an air gunner in the RAF, but was subsequently commissioned and attained the rank of Squadron Leader. He became conductor of the RAF Concert Orchestra, which gave him the opportunity to study more closely the intricacies of orchestral scoring. This experience was to stand him in good stead when he returned to civilian life after the war.
Torch realised that the days of the cinema organ as he knew it were numbered, so he turned to light orchestral composing, arranging and conducting, where he quickly established himself through his radio broadcasts and commercial recordings. He wrote the catchy signature-tune for the famous BBC Radio series "Much Binding In The Marsh", and also discovered that his composing talents were ideally suited to the requirements of the production music (mood music) publishers, that were rapidly establishing libraries in London.
Chappells had already started recording light music for the use of radio, film, newsreel and eventually television companies as far back as 1942, drawing mainly upon the talents of Charles Williams, who conducted the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra on those 78s. From 1946 onwards Sidney Torch contributed many different works to the Chappell catalogue, both under his own name and also as Denis Rycoth (an anagram). He also conducted the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra on these special recordings, working alongside Williams, Robert Farnon, Peter Yorke, Wally Stott, Clive Richardson and many other luminaries of light music in the post-war years. Francis, Day & Hunter employed Torch to conduct their New Century Orchestra when their library was founded in 1947, and he remained with them for two years until a Musicians' Union ban halted all such work in Britain.
In 1946 the Daily Mail organised a 'British Film Festival' with well-known actors recreating on stage scenes from some notable British films of the war years in which they had appeared, accompanied by Torch conducting a large symphony orchestra plus some of his own linking music.
Although the BBC originated most of the material it broadcast on the radio in those days, London musicians were also employed by transcription services (Lang Worth, Muzak etc.) and overseas broadcasting organisations such as Radio Luxembourg and IBC. Torch was closely associated with the Harry Alan Towers radio production company which supplied programmes to Radio Luxembourg and, occasionally, even to the BBC.
In 1953 the BBC decided that it needed a new programme whose brief was: "to help people relax after the week's hard work and put them in the right mood for a happy weekend". With Sidney Torch's full participation, the formula for "Friday Night Is Music Night" was devised - with such foresight that the programme survives to this very day. The BBC Concert Orchestra had been formed the previous year, and Torch conducted them for almost twenty years in this series, until his retirement in 1972.
During this period Torch became one of the most popular and respected conductors in Britain. His countless broadcasts included many celebrity concerts, often at London's Royal Festival Hall as part of the BBC's regular Light Music Festivals. He had a reputation as something of a martinet, according to the musicians and singers who performed under his baton. One described the crackle that emanated from his starched shirt-cuffs on some of his rapier-like downbeats. Singers dreaded 'the glare of the Torch' if they failed to please the maestro. But he was also remembered for various acts of kindness, seldom made public, but nevertheless appreciated by some of his musicians who needed temporary financial assistance. He demanded smartness in dress from his musicians, and always had in reserve an extra pair of gloves or black socks in case of need. His music was also often entertaining to watch as well as hear: his London Transport Suite and Duel for Drummers are ideal examples requiring, as they do, such athletic participation from the percussion section.
Following his retirement Sidney Torch seemed to lose interest in his previous musical activities. He rarely wanted to talk about his pre-war stardom as a cinema organist, and similarly dismissed most attempts to get him to recall his great moments in light music. In a rare radio interview in 1983 he admitted that he had been cruel to most of his producers, although he felt that most of them probably benefitted from the experience. He was appointed MBE in 1985. He died at his Eastbourne, Sussex home on 16th July 1990 at the age of 82, having been pre-deceased by his wife Elizabeth Tyson (a former BBC producer) six months earlier.
Sidney Torch's music is still remembered by the many admirers of the cinema organ and light music. "Friday Night Is Music Night" is still regarded by many as 'his' programme, and his own compositions and arrangements are still regularly performed by 'his' BBC Concert Orchestra. Few musicians could have a better memorial to their talents.
The composing and arranging skills of Sidney Torch are well represented in this selection, expertly performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra under their principal conductor, Barry Wordsworth. This fine orchestra is now the only professional ensemble in Britain regularly playing music of this kind. Light orchestral music requires a certain empathy from musicians; often the inner workings of many of these miniature masterpieces fail to emerge in their intended glory when handled by players unfamiliar with the feel of this style of music. Fortunately the gifted players of the BBC Concert Orchestra experience no such problems, as these recordings undoubtedly prove.
Several of these works are appearing on commercial release for the first time, including London Transport Suite, Barbecue, Concerto Incognito, Slavonic Rhapsody and Duel for Drummers.
 London Transport Suite
I. The Hansom Cab
II. Rosie, The Red Omnibus
III. The 5.52 From Victorloo
London Transport Suite work was commissioned by the BBC for one of their Light Music Festivals in 1957, with the composer conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra. Apparently Torch was inspired by the withdrawal from service of 'The Brighton Belle', a much-loved train running between London and Brighton, a fashionable seaside resort on the south coast of England. The three movements therefore describe modes of transport no longer with us. For the first performance he wrote a detailed description of the 'story' depicted in The Hansom Cab: "Let us go back to the turn of the century when the popular form of transport was that willing friend of man - the horse. Put him between the shafts of a small, irregular shaped box, garnish the box with a heavily overcoated driver, complete with whip, and you have the Hansom Cab. According to the music our four-footed hero emerged from his stable into the invigorating atmosphere of the morning air and went clip-clopping on his lawful way. Suddenly one of the new-fangled automobiles loudly backfired. Our hero took fright and predictably bolted, causing the inevitable collision with a china shop. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt and so, with a relieved whinny, Neddy went on his way."
Rosie, The Red Omnibus was the fore-runner of today's conductor-less diesel monsters. She was a wheezy asthmatic old lady of the 1920s, with her open-topped deck, her bulb horn and her bell pulled from a rope snaking through the lower deck. She is depicted by the largest instrument in the orchestra - the bucolic sounding tuba. Ironically, London's buses were on strike when this work was first performed.
The final movement The 5.52 from Victorloo recalls the steam trains that regularly transported hundreds of thousands of commuters every day into London from the suburbs. Two of the busiest stations were (and still are) Victoria and Waterloo - cleverly combined in this spirited musical journey.
 All Strings and Fancy Free
Sidney Torch excelled at bright, happy, melodic works usually displaying the virtuosity of the string players. All Strings and Fancy Free is a typical example, with the tune bouncing along in the pizzicato fashion that had been made so popular during the 1940s by David Rose.
Like the previous work, Barbecue first appeared as a piece of 'background music' in the Chappell Recorded Music Library. But its infectious melody, and contrasting middle theme add up to a cleverly constructed cameo that fully deserves to be appreciated in its own right.
 Trapeze Waltz
Although many of Torch's tunes have been featured regularly in radio concerts and especially in newsreels of the 1940s and 1950s, it is somewhat surprising that more of his creations were not used as signature tunes of well-known programmes. One of the few exceptions is The Trapeze Waltz, which suited so well the French atmosphere of Maupassant, a series of theme-linked plays based on the stories of Guy de Maupassant, produced by Granada Television in 1963.
 Concerto Incognito
The rarely heard work for piano and orchestra, is reminiscent of many similar pieces that were spawned in the 1940s following the success of Richard Addinsell's Warsaw Concerto. It has a broad melody in the style of many that featured in numerous British films of the period.
 On a Spring Note
The title On a Spring Note aptly describes the jaunty air of this popular novelty. It received numerous broadcasts in the 1950s, and was a successful 78rpm recording by Sidney Torch's own orchestra.
 Bicycle Belles
Before the motor car became the common form of transport for the masses, the bicycle was an enjoyable (and environmentally friendly) pursuit for many, especially at weekends. Bicycle Belles conjures up pleasant mental images of groups of healthy young ladies pedalling through the green country lanes - just for the fun of it. Hikers beware!
 Comic Cuts
I. Rolling Home
II. Barrow Boy
III. Custard Pie
The Chappell Recorded Music Library needed some comical themes, and Sidney Torch duly obliged with the three cameos of Comic Cuts for them in 1950. They attracted such attention from the public that he soon had to join them together for a commercial recording. The titles are so appropriate, that any further descriptions would be superfluous.
 Mexican Fiesta
I. Mexican Hat Dance
II. La Cumparsita
III. El Vaquero
IV. Cielito Lindo
V. Ay Ay Ay
Torch became a master of selections, and Mexican Fiesta first appeared on two sides of a Parlophone 12" 78rpm record back in 1951. It is still being performed today, illustrating the freshness of Torch's scoring which never seems to date. His obituary in the London Times stated that nobody ever applauded in the middle of one of his arrangements: it was always clear from the unresolved chords or bridging passages whether or not the music was ended, or had just paused for breath.
 Petite Valse
During his long career, Torch made superlative arrangements of many popular songs of the day. The Joe Heyne composition Petite Valse achieved considerable popularity from 1950 onwards, with over a dozen recordings on both sides of the Atlantic. The sheet music reached No. 1 in the charts, and Sidney Torch's own arrangement was recorded by his orchestra for EMI's Parlophone label in Britain.
 Samba Sud
It seems undeniable that Torch had a special affection for the sounds of Latin America. He cleverly adapted the vibrant rhythms of popular dances of that region for several of his compositions, at the same time managing to avoid the usual dance band connotations.
 Shortcake Walk
The lively hoe-down Shortcake Walk from 1952 allows the whole orchestra to enjoy themselves, and one is tempted to believe that the conductor must have been in a happy frame of mind, too! Although this is a 100% Torch original, somehow it gives the impression that it is a folksy melody you have known all your life.
 Slavonic Rhapsody
II. Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor
IV. Russian Folk Dance
VI. Cavalry of the Steppes
IX. Sabre Dance
The Torch arrangement for two pianos and orchestra Slavonic Rhapsody was originally conceived for his long-running radio programme "Friday Night Is Music Night". One of the show's aims was to bridge the gap between serious and popular music, and to try and prove that works by 'serious' composers did not have to be boring and dull. Torch's skill ensured that the works of Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Knipper, Borodin and Khachaturian certainly did not fall into those categories.
 Cresta Run
In his many radio broadcasts Torch never hesitated to champion the works of his contemporaries. There are many instances where his deft touch with a score somehow elevated what may have been a fairly ordinary work into something sounding rather special. The sparkling composition Cresta Run provides a showpiece for the xylophone. It was written by the French composer Claud Yvoire, confirming that gifted musicians in many countries were creating examples of tuneful light music in the post-war years.
 Shooting Star
Shooting Star is probably Torch's best-known composition, still being broadcast regularly today, combining all the essentials that make a light music 'classic' - a strong, catchy main theme, supported by a melodic middle theme, with contrasting tempi demanding top performances from all the musicians, especially the strings. Soon after Chappell's first issued it in 1947 it was chosen by BBC Television to introduce their "Kaleidoscope" feature.
 Going for a Ride
Another Sidney Torch original where the title says all. The Going for a Ride, charming piece, dating from 1947, was yet another of his works originally written for the Chappell Recorded Music Library, but it quickly became noticed, resulting in a commercial recording and frequent broadcasts.
 Duel for Drummers
I. Drumsticks for Two
II. On a Desert Isle
III. And the Kitchen Sink
Sidney Torch specially composed Duel for Drummers for Dennis Brady and his daughter Pat, when they were both percussionists with the BBC Concert Orchestra.
Drumsticks for Two almost sounds like the theme from a war movie. No doubt Torch had the 'duel' of the suite's title firmly in mind for this movement. The flowing middle theme (which develops into the finale) would have been a credit to Eric Coates.
On a Desert Isle opens to blissful sounds as dawn breaks, only to have the peace shattered by a local feathered inhabitant! Thereafter we are treated to a miscellany of languorous then dramatic themes, as the island is hit by a tropical storm. In due course, tranquility returns, to suitably soporific sounds, eventually dissipated as the indigenous species reassert themselves.
And the Kitchen Sink opens as a rumbustious galop, with the xylophone to the fore, until Torch allows virtually every percussion instrument in the orchestra to let their hair down. It provides a spirited and melodic finale to a distinguished programme of music that so perfectly represents the work of one of the finest British Light Music composers of the 20th century.
© 1996 David Ades
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