The Majestic Fanfare (ABC radio news theme) – Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra
This audio clip is from the original recording, made in London by the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra, of Charles Williams’s 'Majestic Fanfare’.
Summary by Paul Byrnes
This was not the first ABC news theme – but the fourth. Before the Second World War, the tune ‘By Land, Sea and Air’ was used, then ‘The British Grenadiers’ served until February 1942, when it was replaced by an abridged version of ‘Advance Australia Fair’. The ‘Majestic Fanfare’ was used in Australia to introduce parliamentary broadcasts only. It replaced ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as the radio news theme from 31 December 1952. It became the TV news theme as well from the start of broadcast television in 1956.
This 1943 Fanfare has become synonymous with great events, which is not surprising given the recording’s air of authority and gravity. Although the purpose for which it was written is not clear, its grandeur suggests a royal occasion, as does the title.
The theme was edited several times, with an 18-second version introducing extended radio bulletins in the 1970s, and a nine-second version used for other TV and radio bulletins. It was replaced in 1985 when television news and current affairs were reorganised, only to be brought back in 1988, the year of the Bicentenary, in a new modernised form arranged by Australian composer Richard Mills. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stuart Challender, recorded the new Mills version, which has been used since then as the radio news theme on most networks.
The original Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra version was remixed in 1991 by John Jacobs and Paul McKercher for ABC’s youth network Triple J, where it is still used as a news theme.
The Majestic Fanfare synopsis
The original 1943 recording of the ABC’s much loved ‘Majestic Fanfare’, used in various forms since 1952 to introduce news broadcasts.
The ‘Majestic Fanfare’ was not composed specifically for the ABC, nor written by an Australian, nor even played by an Australian orchestra, but for most Australians it is as Australian as a gum tree or the call of a kookaburra. Since 1952, in one form or another, it has been the piece of music that tells us to sit up and listen, the news is on.
It has become synonymous with great events, and has thus acquired authority and gravity – which is why there is an outcry whenever it is changed, re-recorded or dropped as the news theme. The public sense of ownership of this piece of music is strong.
Charles Williams wrote it in 1935, when he was about 43 years old. Born Isaac Cozerbrect in the East End of London in 1893, he was the son of immigrant Polish Jews. His father ‘borrowed’ the name Charles Williams from a well-known British composer. Isaac in turn became Charles Williams as his musical career developed in the years after the First World War. In the early 1920s he was a freelance violinist in various orchestras, from silent cinema and concert hall, graduating to composition and composing in 1923.
In 1929 he was one of those who collaborated to write the music for the first British sound film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail. He wrote music for more than 100 films over the next 20 years, including Hitchcock’s 1937 version of The 39 Steps. In 1942 he took charge of the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra, a recording unit established by Chappell Music publishers to promote their music library. From the late 1930s there were several competing orchestras supplying music for use in films and newsreels.
The QHLO was one of the best of them and that’s who we hear in this 1943 recording of the ‘Fanfare’. Williams’s purpose in writing it eight years earlier is unclear. The title could suggest a royal occasion, perhaps the Silver Jubilee of George V and Queen Mary, celebrated in May 1935. We do not know.
Notes by Paul Byrnes