Ernest John Moeran belongs to the generation of British composers that flourished in the first half of the twentieth century. His studies at the Royal College of Music were interrupted by the First World War, in which he was seriously wounded. He resumed his studies under John Ireland who remained a strong influence, as was Delius. Other influences may be found in the landscape and folk-song of his native Norfolk and in the country of his forebears, Ireland, where he died in 1950. His earlier work included songs and chamber music that earned him favourable attention. In 1945 he married the cellist Peers Coetmore, for whom he wrote his Cello Concerto – one of his most important works – followed by other works for the instrument.
Composed in 1945, the deft scoring and memorable melodic material of E.J. Moeran’s Cello Concerto mark it as a work of his maturity. At its heart is the raptly lyrical and profoundly felt slow movement but the whole concerto reflects the singing qualities of the solo instrument. The much-admired Serenade is heard in the 1996 edition of the original 1948 version with eight movements. Lonely Waters is a brief but evocative orchestral rhapsody, and Whythorne’s Shadow a touching fantasy based on an Elizabethan madrigal.
Listen to an excerpt of Cello Concerto
Moeran – Unveiling the musical charm of a melancholy muse
By JoAnn Falletta
When I was appointed the principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, one of my fondest hopes was that I would have the opportunity to learn about music of the United Kingdom and Ireland. The most extraordinary discovery for me was the haunting music of a man almost unknown in the United States, a composer whose tragic life gave birth to some of the most poignant works in the orchestral literature.
Ernest John Moeran was without question one of the greatest English composers of the 20th century. The son of an Irish clergyman, Moeran was born in Middlesex and spent his early impressionable years on the Norfolk coast. That unforgettable landscape was a particularly vivid inspiration to him, and his works are permeated with the spirit of the folk songs he loved and collected. Moeran spent the latter part of his life in the wilds of rural Ireland, and continued his folksong explorations there, often in the pubs of Kerry. In fact, he was so taken with Ireland that in his mature life he claimed that he could only write music there!
Moeran’s pieces are all inspired by the incomparable beauty of the scenery of Norfolk and County Kerry. The duality of his Anglo-Irish background created music of fascinating complexity and nuance, and they seem a powerful reflection of the complicated history of the relationship of Ireland and the United Kingdom. But the works are also infused with an enchanting perfume of the physical beauty of the countryside and the charm of folk music.
For example, Lonely Waters is an exquisite tone poem based on a fragment of a song frequently heard in the pubs of Moeran’s boyhood Norfolk. A kind of folksong rhapsody, the piece ends with a haunting voice intoning the words of the song:
So I’ll go down to some lonely waters
Go down where no one can find me
Where the pretty little small birds do change their voices
And every moment blow blustering wild.
Moeran creates an atmosphere of bleak and lonely expanse colored by birdsong – a beautiful portrait of a landscape he loved.
Also included on the CD is Moeran’s tribute to the music of sixteenth-century composer Thomas Whythorne, the composer of the earliest book of secular songs printed in England. Moeran based the lilting Whythorne’s Shadow on Whythorne’s part-song “As thy Shadow Itself Apply’th”, in a charming “handshake across the centuries”. Another little-known gem is his Serenade. This lighthearted work – brilliantly orchestrated – swings from stately dances to folk songs to rhapsodic intermezzos and poetic interludes in a piece marked by buoyant good spirits, rhythmic syncopation and harmonic colour.
But the true heart of this new Naxos CD is Moeran’s stunning and poignant Cello Concerto. This was the composer’s last large-scale work and is tinged with an autumnal melancholy and valedictory splendor reminiscent of the Elgar Cello Concerto. Written for the woman with whom he had fallen in love, the piece is an astonishingly touching paean for the cello, which is allowed to sing with a voice of gentle sadness and Irish charm.
Moeran lived a life filled with sorrow and personal tragedy. That melancholy permeates all of his work. His music was a doorway for me into the very special character of the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland – the sadness, the fierce loyalty, the hope and hopelessness, the absolute charm of the people and their courage in the face of tremendous difficulty. In a way, Moeran introduced me to my new “home” in Belfast. Listening to his music taught me more about my new cultural base than any history books. It is my hope that the Naxos CD will introduce this extraordinary composer to millions of listeners, and that the haunting voice of Ernest John Moeran will bring his beloved landscape to listeners far beyond Ireland and England.
About the Artists
JoAnn Falletta was appointed Principal Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra in North Ireland in May 2011, the orchestraʼs twelfth but first female and first American to be appointed to the post. She also serves as Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and Virginia Symphony in the United States. She has guest conducted over a hundred orchestras in North America, and many of the most prominent orchestras in Europe, Asia, South America and Africa and is the Principal Guest Conductor of the Brevard Music Center of North Carolina.
The cellist Guy Johnstonʼs career rapidly developed after he won the BBC Young Musician competition in 2000, going on to open the Proms and win a Classical Brit. He has performed with many leading international orchestras including the London Philharmonic, BBC Philharmonic, Philharmonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Deutsches Symphonie Orchester and St Petersburg Symphony.
The Ulster Orchestra is one of Northern Irelandʼs cultural cornerstones and since its foundation in 1966 has become one of the major symphony orchestras in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The Hungarian-born violinist, Tamás Kocsis, leads the Orchestra. Northern Irelandʼs only professional symphony orchestra performs in front of over 100,000 people across Northern Ireland each year averaging eighty to ninety performances.