Eric Coates was to become the greatest British composer of light music in the 20th century, though his education never looked to be leading him in that direction. He was born in the midlands of England, in the county of Nottinghamshire, in 1886. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, taking viola with the legendary Lionel Tertis, and composition with Frederick Corder. But it was as a violist that he earned his living, joining the famous Queen’s Hall Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood. From 1913 to 1919 he was principal viola, and a list of first British performances by that orchestra would indicate that he came into contact with all the most avant garde music of his day. Yet it was to be in the field of light music that he was to become famous.
It was the time of the radio, the BBC Light Programme with its demands for new music, and the need to brighten the country after the First World War, and above all it was the day of the ‘bright young thing’. It was the perfect scene for a composer who could produce a seemingly endless stream of easily memorable melodies. A publishing house commissioned him to write a major light music work for orchestra each year, while they were happy to take anything from him including his large output of songs.
Orchestras demanded that he conduct his own music with them, and he started a second career as a conductor of light music including many appearances with the BBC Theatre Orchestra. His music spoke to all generations, from those looking for nostalgia, to the very young, with his phantasies, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Three Bears’. He produced one major success after another, his music in the war years valuable to the morale of the nation, and included the stirring march for the Eighth Army to mark their Alamein victory in 1942 under General Montgomery.
Though he continued conducting his own music after the war, including definitive recordings of much of his output, his compositional career seemingly burned out. Then in a sudden flurry of activity he produced a number of fine works in his last years. That period included the Dambusters March for the film on that theme, the first time he succumbed to the many film music offers made to him.
He had so many successes, and his music became known to just about everyone in the UK, that it was thought he had a considerable output, but apart from his songs, it numbered less than fifty. Without doubt it was his training in classical music, and the years in the orchestra, that enabled him to write so fluently and so colourfully.
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