Robert Docker and the ‘Heavy’ Issue of Light Music

513IVX81zHLOn the 5th of June 1918, English composer, arranger and pianist Robert Docker was born in London. The son of a Paddington gas worker, Docker studied piano, viola and composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London. After serving in the army during World War II, he became a freelance musician, playing the piano, arranging broadcasting and recording sessions, and appearing as soloists with guest orchestras. One of his regular assignments was with the BBC Scottish Variety Orchestra in Glasgow. As an arranger, Docker was involved in working for several film composers. He was also a brilliant improviser, giving performances at various music clubs. He wrote much music for the mood music libraries and numerous light music compositions. Among the latter his most known titles are the Air and Jig for violin, cello and piano, Concert Cascade and Jolly Roger for brass band and Fairy Dance Reel, Penny Whistle Tune, Pizzicato Minuet, West Indian Dance and Tabarinage.

Docker is regarded as one of the finest musicians in the field of popular light music and one of its primary champions as a performer both in Britain and later in Australia. His compositions, mostly heard on BBC Radio 2, have become standards in the light music genre. “Light music is a term that, for much of the twentieth century, embraced a great deal of the musical terrain now known as easy listening, such as the music of dance bands. It was also used to indicate music related to a classical idiom – especially to light opera or operétte – rather than jazz; this style was commonly described as ‘light classical’, but it was always more that watered-down classical. From its earliest manifestations (the music of Josef Lanner and the elder Johann Strauss in Vienna), it bore a distinctive character and developed its own unique features, such as falling leading-notes and an emphasis on the sixth degree of the scale.” (Nicholas Cook, Anthony Pople, The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music). In many ways the history of British light music knits together the social and economic history of the country with that of its general musical heritage. Numerous ‘serious’ composers from Elgar to Britten composed light music, and the genre adapted itself to incorporate the changing fashions heralded by the rise and fall of music hall, the drawing room ballad, ragtime, jazz and the revue. From the 1950s the recording and broadcasting industries provided a new home for light music as an accompaniment to radio downloadprogrammes and films. The major feature of the genre, according to the light music composer Ernest Tomlinson, is its emphasis on melody. Lyndon Jenkins, on the other hand, describes the genre as “original orchestral pieces, often descriptive but in many cases simply three or four minutes of music with an arresting main theme and a contrasting middle section.” (Lyndon Jenkin’s CD notes to “British Light Music” (EMI)). There is also an opinion of David Ades who stated that light music “occupies a position between classical and popular music, yet its boundaries are often blurred.” (David Ades, notes to The Great British Light Experience, EMI, 1997)

It seems that the genre itself opens up questions as to what it really represents. Light music has a vague definition: it can be anything in the range from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, opéra-bouffe by Offenbach or Strauss’ Viennese waltzes, through the Savoy Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber or mid-twentieth century compositions for radio and films by Robert Docker and him alike, to jazz. This poses problems in terms of a reliable criticism of the genre as a whole. The main issue here is the two-directional differentiation between ‘serious’ classical music and light music, and the other way around – between light music and easy listening, the latter being highly despised by sociologist, philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno. “While light music is often seen as downmarket classical, easy listening is often regarded as upmarket pop. That is why both genres meet in the middle – but it is the middle approach from different directions. The identification of a middlebrow taste began in the 1920s, continued in the 1930s, and was perceived by some critics in the next decade as more of a threat to high art than was lowbrow taste. …The label easy listening is now applied to music that was not, until the 1980s, marketed as a particular product, yet this is the sort of music that, from Adorno onward, has been condemned by critics as the music industry’s most unchallenging, manipulative commodity.” (Cook, Pople) 

Desktop12When it comes to the differentiation between light music and ‘serious’ classical music “Adorno allows himself to be more indulgent in what he has to say. Although the spheres of light… and serious music are now separated, they had previously been much closer, and had interacted to their mutual benefit. For Adorno, the ultimate synthesis of serious and popular occurred in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, after which, he writes, ‘it was never again possible to force serious and light music together’.  But even in the nineteenth century, light music still apparently had something to offer in relation to serious music, and accordingly the operettas of Offenbach, the waltzes of Strauss and Viennese operetta are treated by Adorno with a kind of paternal tolerance. Light music is regarded as a kind of pendant to serious music – an immature and possibly rather frivolous poor relation, but nevertheless not to be totally dismissed merely on that account, as after all it is still one of the family. Historically, serious or ‘high art’ music had renewed its lost strength by borrowing from time to time from the ‘lower’, from ‘vulgar’ music (and here light music seems to tail off into folk music). Now, however, it is the lower which plays with the scraps which have fallen from the table of the higher music. That is, in the increasing split which has developed between the two spheres, Adorno maintains, as we have seen, that the lower music becomes merely the degenerated form of what the higher was at a previous stage.” (Max Paddison, The Critique Criticised: Adorno and Popular Music, Popular Music, Vol. 2, Theory and Method, 1982).

Adorno’s critique has been considered as prejudiced, arrogant, and difficult to accept by many musicologists and critics. This proves that light music is a phenomenon much more complex than it appears on the surface. Its melodies and tonality might be simple, yet its relationship with other musical genres displays a certain transformative tendency that can be understood in musical terms, as well as in those of sociological and historical context.  

Credit: collectionCB