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8.223445 - COATES, E.: Dam Busters (The) / London Suite
Eric Coates (1886-1957)
"You are the man who writes tunes".
Thus did the formidable English composer Dame Ethel Smyth address Eric Coates in 1911, demonstrating that, even at the very outset of his composing career, that vital ingredient which was to endear him to millions of music-lovers around the world - his supreme melodic gift - was already in evidence. Allied to a masterly orchestral technique, it was to help earn him the title of "Uncrowned King of Light Music".
Eric Coates was born at half past four on the afternoon of August 27, 1886 in Hucknall, a mining town about 130 miles north of London, seven miles north of Nottingham and three miles north of Newstead Abbey, the ancestral home of Lord Byron whose tomb was to be found in Hucknall Parish Church. His father, the local doctor, was a good amateur musician whilst his mother, the daughter of a Welsh clergyman, was a fine pianist. Eric was the youngest of five children and grew up in a happy and secure household. Musical talent manifested itself early on and at the age of six, he was already trying out his skills as a violinist, teaching himself to play a miniature red and yellow instrument, relying solely on the instructions in a training manual. A teacher was eventually brought in and, along with some lessons provided by his mother, the young boy's musical tuition began to proceed apace. His general education had to be entrusted to a governess, employed primarily to teach his sisters - he never went to school.
He made attempts at elementary composition, writing simple tunes and even attempting to arrange some of them. He made a string quartet adaptation of Tell Me, Pretty Maiden from Leslie Stuart's then hugely-popular Florodora, carefully taking down the parts from a phonograph recording. At the age of ten, he made his first appearance as a soloist when, at literally a moment's notice - in fact, he had to be roused from bed - he stood in for a fog-bound performer and played Svendsen's Romance. As his violin playing improved, so it was decided he should receive proper tuition and, at the age of twelve, he was duly enrolled with the German-born but naturalised British Georg Ellenberger, a one-time pupil of the great Joseph Joachim. Twice a week, the young Coates undertook the railway journey from Hucknall to Nottingham for lessons, with a third being required for harmony training with another local musician, one Dr. Ralph Horner.
He made encouraging progress with both teachers although under the strict academic regime of Horner, he was forbidden at first to indulge his passion for original composition and had, therefore, to carry out this activity in strictest secret. He devoted untold hours to his studies, to the extent that it began to have a detrimental effect on his health. But he was soon proficient enough to be able to take his seat as Second Violin in a quartet formed by Ellenberger which, besides improving his technique, also introduced him to a wide range of music to which he would otherwise have not had access.
It was at Ellenberger's suggestion that Coates turned to the viola. It was a wise move and the teenager found the mellower tones of the instrument greatly to his liking. It was as a violist that, a little later, he joined a local string orchestra and it was for this ensemble that, in 1904, he wrote the Ballad, dedicated to Georg Ellenberger. (This work was marked 'Op. 2'. Precisely what 'Op. 1' was is a mystery although it might have been a Romance in D for violin and piano which the young composer played in 1902 and again in the following year).
Coates' already remarkably comprehensive musical training was further enhanced with his joining a full orchestra based in Nottingham which, apart from giving him the opportunity of playing under the celebrated conductor Henry Wood, also enabled him to meet other professional players from whom he learned much about the ins and outs of a musician's life. He also engaged in detailed discussions on instrumental technique which proved a great help to his skills as an orchestrator.
His enthusiasm led him to write to Dan Godfrey in Bournemouth to enquire if he had a viola vacancy in that town's famous orchestra. The reply was affirmative but one of the conditions was that players were also required to perform in a band and, therefore, needed a second instrument. With no further delay, Coates acquired a flute and quickly became commendably adroit on it. In the end, however, he didn't pursue the Bournemouth post and regarded the 'flute interlude' as simply another means of improving his already considerable all-round musical knowledge.
Indeed, his whole life was absorbed with music and he never missed an opportunity to go to a concert or recital. And yet, his father was concerned at the thought of his son trying to earn a living as a musician. Accordingly, he attempted to steer his offspring in the direction of a banking career. Coates was horrified at this idea but, fortunately, his father eventually gave his consent to the young man going to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music, but only on condition that, if he hadn't shown any significant progress by the end of his first year, he was to return to take up a position in banking circles.
And so, at the age of twenty, Eric Coates found himself enrolling at the famous Academy. He was required to audition before, and be interviewed by, the formidable Principal, Sir Alexander Mackenzie who, being singularly impressed by the young man's setting of My Love is Like the Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns (like Sir Alexander, of course, a Scotsman), decreed that he should take composition as his first study, with the viola as subsidiary. In both subjects, he found himself working under two of the most distinguished teachers in the land, Frederick Corder for the former and Lionel Tertis for the latter. From the outset, Coates was in no doubt that he wanted to write music in lighter vein and that symphonies, oratorios and other such weighty matters were beyond the interest of his temperament. Indeed, he informed Corder of his intentions within a week of his arrival at the Academy.
The training was rigorous and Coates had to put in a long day in order to keep up with the workload and make sufficient progress to keep the dreaded bank at bay. In addition to a full roster of lessons, he was also obliged to play in the Academy orchestra as well as various ensembles. It wasn't all work, however, and his days were interspersed with episodes of boisterous high spirits, including one notorious occasion when he was involved in the firing of a loaded pistol in the Academy's gentlemen's lavatories, to the considerable detriment of the convenience's plumbing!
Up till now, he had been playing on a not quite full size viola which, although perfectly adequate for much of the time, proved rather lightweight in the context of a string quartet. Coates took the opportunity of exchanging it, but the replacement caused excessive mirth among his colleagues. For, although its tone was admirable in every respect, its appearance was quite extraordinary, being exceedingly stout with f-holes so large that fellow-players used to joke that it allowed sandwiches to be pushed through for storage in the instrument!
Coates now attempted to form a string quartet with some friends. They gave it a name, the Celtic Quartet, but it was a very short-lived affair and proved unable even to deliver its first recital, the leader's E string snapping during the initial tuning-up, thereby necessitating, in the absence of a replacement, the immediate and undignified abandoning of the evening's intended music-making. The ensemble, not surprisingly, disbanded soon afterwards.
Whilst at times seeming a little reserved, Coates was, in many respects, a self-assured young man. He refused to be bullied by his elders and won respect for his willingness to speak out in support of his beliefs. He was even prepared to stand up to an aggressive musical director at his first professional engagement in 1907 in the Vaudeville Theatre Orchestra. But he was quickly recognised as a thoroughly reliable player which resulted in more and more freelance work, culminating in a two-month stint at the Savoy Theatre performing Gilbert and Sullivan. The income he thus received, combined with his winning a scholarship, meant that he had met his father's conditions of study and could, accordingly, look forward to continuing his musical training without fear of being pulled back into a banking career.
However, the workload carried by Coates - a seemingly endless round of lessons, ensemble classes, quartet classes, orchestral classes, recitals and freelance engagements - appears to have had an adverse effect because around this time, 1907-08, he began to notice a weakness and aching in his left hand which was to get slowly but progressively worse over the years. For the moment, though, he was able to cope. Composition was not allowed to lapse and during this period, he worked on Four Shakespeare Songs for Soprano and Orchestra (later re-titled Four Old English Songs).
One night, he returned to his lodgings to find, to his amazement, his viola professor, Lionel Tertis, waiting for him. The maestro had an extraordinary request. Unable to take his usual place as violist in the Hambourg Quartet, which was shortly to set off on a tour of South Africa, would his young pupil agree to sit in for him? Needless to say, Coates leapt at this golden opportunity and acquitted himself admirably at the ensuing audition. But he was increasingly concerned by the pain in his left hand, which was now aggravated by numbness in the third and fourth fingers. With such an important engagement now in prospect, he decided he must undergo proper medical examination. The outcome was that he was advised to cease intensive practice and excessive playing, a drastic recommendation in that it meant discontinuing his lessons with Tertis and, accordingly, giving up his scholarship. But, in truth, it was the only wise course and for the next few months, he confined his musical activities to rehearsals with the Hambourg Quartet, and composition.
And so, barely into his twenties, Coates found himself embarking, with the Quartet, on his first major recital tour. To the young man from rural Nottinghamshire, the experience of such an exotic journey was over whelming and he found the tour immensely stimulating from both a musical and personal viewpoint. The excitement continued with his eventual return to England where he was greeted with two gratifying pieces of news - firstly, that two orchestral Songs for Baritone by him had been performed by the Royal Academy of Music Orchestra with considerable success and that, secondly, Boosey was interested in publishing them. The Boosey offer soon became reality and the budding composer had the pleasure of seeing his first music in print. Naturally, all this renewed his confidence - not that he was completely lacking in this commodity. For example, he had already summoned up the courage to write to John Galsworthy asking for, and receiving, permission to set one of the great poet's verses.
Slowly but surely, his reputation began to grow. When the Hambourg Quartet decided to commission a composite work built around the traditional Irish Londonderry Air, Coates was one of the composers asked to provide a movement - the others being Hamilton Harty, Frank Bridge, York Bowen and J.D. Davies. At the première, it was Coates' movement, a Minuet, which had to be encored.
His work with the Hambourg ensemble continued while his composing career was given tremendous encouragement on receipt of a letter from Mrs. Henry Wood saying that she and her husband wished to perform the Four Old English Songs at a Queen's Hall Promenade concert. At about the same time, his approaches to the most famous lyric writer of the day, Fred E. Weatherly, met with a favourable response. He went to meet the distinguished barrister - for that was Weatherly's profession - in his office and came away with a verse in West Country style called Stonecracker John. The excited composer wasted no time in getting to work and began scribbling down a musical idea on the back of an envelope while journeying home on a horse-bus. The song was completed in two days, but Coates had to wait nearly a year before Harry Dearth gave it its first performance at the Royal Albert Hall. It was a huge success, had to be encored three times, and necessitated the printing of several thousand copies of the sheet music. It was also the start of a personal friendship and working partnership between Coates and Weatherly (notwithstanding an age gap of some forty years) which was to produce a number of fine songs, including A Dinder Courtship and Green Hills o' Somerset.
By now, Coates was once again a busy viola player. One of the ensembles he performed with was the first orchestra created by Sir Thomas Beecham - officially the Beecham Symphony Orchestra, but affectionately known as the Beecham Pill-harmonic, acknowledging the Beecham family's pharmaceutical connections. Coates toured Britain with the orchestra, which proved an excellent musical experience but, unfortunately, aggravated the problem in his left hand which had seemed to be getting better as a result of the sun and warmth of the South African tour.
He led a nomadic home life, residing in various London dwellings - first, in the flat of a family friend above a haberdashery store in Kilburn High Road, next in a bedsit near Regent's Park; after that, a room in Clifton Gardens and, finally, a move to apartments in Loudoun Road. This latter accommodation suited the young composer admirably for it had a "good elevation". As Coates himself put it, "I should like to live either in a balloon suspended a thousand feet above Regent's Park, or in my own private lighthouse on a rock two hundred feet above a semi-tropical sea, or, failing this, on the summit of a mountain in a house with a tower from which I could see three hundred miles each way". Coates happened to find height conducive to creative work and Loudoun Road provided him with a suitably elevated outlook!
His songs began to be heard more frequently, and they entered the repertoire of many prominent artistes, including the tenor Gervase Elwes, who often included a Coates ballad in his recitals and, as already mentioned, Mrs. Henry Wood. Even the great Dame Nellie Melba took up his setting of Who is Sylvia? , regarding it as her favourite song.
A move to another 'elevated' abode continued to encourage creative thoughts and it was about this time, 1910, that Coates secured a position in the viola section of Henry Wood's Queen's Hall Orchestra. He was to spend eight years with this highly respected ensemble, serving as principal viola from 1913 and playing under some of the greatest conductors of the day as well as encountering a host of celebrated soloists and composers - all providing invaluable experience.
Opportunities to have his newly-written orchestral music played began to present themselves. Henry Wood gave the immensely successful première of the Miniature Suite, Coates' first orchestral piece since the Ballade, at a Promenade concert in October 1911. A one time colleague, the violinist Basil Cameron, having obtained the post of conductor of the Torquay Municipal Orchestra, subsequently invited the composer to write a piece for that seaside town and conduct it himself. Later, the London Symphony Orchestra also gave him some openings. And all the while, he continued to turn out songs and ballads, all of which were performed, some to huge acclaim, such as the aforementioned A Dinder Courtship, others to more modest receptions.
In early March 1911, at a Royal Academy of Music concert, Coates met the girl who was to become his wife. Phyllis Black was a young recitation student and her renditions of Coleridge and Tennyson quite captivated the 24 year old composer. A romance developed, despite the eight year age difference, and it was not long before talk of marriage was in the air. But her parents were strongly against the liaison and every effort was made to separate the two. However, in time-honoured fashion, true love eventually won the day and Eric Coates and Phyllis (always known just as Phyl) Black were finally married in February 1913. The bride's parents set the seal on their change of heart with the gift of a fine grand piano; it was just unfortunate that it proved too large to fit into the newlyweds' apartment!
Married life was to prove idyllic, for the couple shared similar interests. A pleasant holiday in 1913 was followed by an equally enjoyable break the following year but then, war intervened. Coates was declared medically unfit for military service and so he and Phyl remained in London, but concerts and engagements were cancelled, making the future look rather bleak. They moved into rented rooms where Coates concentrated on his composing, but the financial situation was considerably eased by Phyl embarking on the career she had always wanted to pursue, but had been prevented from doing so by parental opposition - that of an actress.
The fall from grace, not long after the outbreak of war, of the Queen's Hall Orchestra's patron, Sir Edgar Speyer, and the consequent risk of the orchestra itself being disbanded, made Coates' prospects even gloomier. Fortunately, however, William Boosey, director of the publishing firm of Chappell & Co., agreed to take charge of orchestral affairs and the ensemble duly re-emerged in 1916 as the New Queen's Hall Orchestra. Boosey was also to play an influential role in Coates' career, first by asking him to become a founder-member of the Performing Right Society on its inception in 1914 and, secondly, by getting a number of works into print.
The membership of the Performing Right Society did initially cause problems, though, through the early refusal of some organisations and individuals to acknowledge the concept of paying royalties on performances. Coates received a number of letters saying that his works were to be banned but eventually, he reaped ample dividend from the new system. Meantime, he doggedly struggled to establish himself as a composer, notably with the Suite From the Countryside and the Valsette Wood Nymphs. In spite of his earlier successes as a songwriter, he still found it difficult to secure a firm foothold in this particular area in the face of competition from so many other established practitioners of the art. So, he was forced to continue to rely for the major part of his income on viola-playing, notwithstanding the increasing pain in his hand. He also took on some teaching work at the Royal Academy of Music, a task which brought him very little pleasure.
The formation of the New Queen's Hall Light Orchestra under Alick Maclean brought a welcome new opening for his music. Maclean was to prove a doughty champion of Coates and many works were to be premiered - and duly popularised - under his expert baton. But generally, during the war years, performances of his compositions were very few and far between. Coates could not understand why and it took a long time before he learnt that this unsatisfactory state of affairs was, in fact, being deliberately engineered. It transpired that a senior Chappell employee held a grudge against the composer and was maliciously deterring would-be performers. As soon as the offending individual was identified, he was quickly removed from harm's way and, at long last, Coates' music was given its full opportunity in the market place. The result was a rapid and impressive upsurge in sales and performances!
This was just as well because the composer's playing days, unbeknown to him, were numbered. It was while he and his wife were taking a lengthy holiday on the Suffolk coast in the summer of 1919 that a letter arrived from Robert Newman, manager of the New Queen's Hall Orchestra, notifying Coates that his services were no longer required. (Although not made clear at the time, it was revealed later that the reason for this dismissal was because Henry Wood felt the composer had not been attending sufficient rehearsals and concerts, over-relying on deputies). Understandably, this news came as a blow but it was not long before Coates saw it as a blessing. He would finally be able to give up the viola - which he did, never ever playing the instrument again - and concentrate on writing. At a stroke, Eric Coates the violist had disappeared to be replaced by Eric Coates the full-time composer, and he marked the transition in style in October 1919 by conducting the first performance of his Suite Summer Days at a Queen's Hall Promenade concert.
While his wife helped financially with her work on the stage, the composer devoted all his time to writing. Circumstances necessitated a move to a flat at the top of Phyl's parents' home in a particularly attractive part of North London and it was in these amenable surroundings that Coates completed his Suite Joyous Youth and the exuberant Overture The Merrymakers.
Phyl's career went from strength to strength, interrupted only by the unplanned arrival in 1922 of a son, Austin. For the couple hitherto devoted only to each other, it was a major upheaval and required considerable adjustments to their lifestyle. But the transition was smoothly effected and the happy family atmosphere continued undiminished. Phyl was back at work ten months later and Coates himself, who had found the addition to the household exceedingly unconducive to composition, began to put pen to paper once more, coming increasingly under the influence of the jazzy sounds of Jack Hylton and His Band. And yet, it was to be the infant Austin who could claim a large share of the credit for the full reawakening of his father's creative muse. The youngster quickly came to love bedtime stories, especially as read by his imaginative actress-mother. The composer often eavesdropped on these nocturnal narratives and seemed to enjoy them as much as his small son. A particular favourite was Oscar Wilde's tale of The Selfish Giant and it was this fairy-story which provided the inspiration for an orchestral Phantasy written in fulfillment of a commission for the 1925 Eastbourne Festival. Two more similarly inspired Phantasies were to follow - The Three Bears in 1926 and Cinderella in 1929 - both premièred, like their predecessor, in Eastbourne. The Suite Four Ways appeared in 1927, commissioned for that year's Harrogate Festival by Coates' old friend, Basil Cameron, while, accompanying these larger-scale pieces were smaller works such as the Intermezzo By the Tamarisk, the Romance Mirage and the Intermezzo Under the Stars. And throughout the decade, songs continued to emerge at regular intervals, many of them with words by Royden Barrie, father of a famous composer of a later generation, Richard Rodney Bennett.
1922, apart from witnessing the birth of their son, also marked the beginning of what was to prove in several ways a comparatively privileged way of life for Coates and his wife. Much time was devoted to leisure and social activities and there did not seem to be too many cares to cloud the horizon. That year also saw the composer being made a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music while his reputation continued to rise. Amongst his admirers, he could count no less distinguished a figure than Sir Edward Elgar who, in later years, made a point of buying every single one of Coates' recordings. These started to appear in 1923. He also began to find work on the fledgling radio and was one of the first - if not the first - composers to conduct a broadcast concert of his own music. From 1922 onwards, he, Phyl and Austin spent many summer months in a house near Chichester, deep in rural Sussex which provided a delightful haven from the bustle of London although it was the capital city that proved to be the main source of inspiration. As Coates himself put it: "The country is for dreaming and the town for work". Indeed, the only shadows across an otherwise sunny life were the occasional periods of ill-health which the composer had to contend with, culminating in a full-blown bout of pneumonia in 1929.
In August 1930, the Coates family moved into a top-floor flat in Baker Street, overlooking Regent's Park and it was here that many famous scores were to be written. It was as if the change of surroundings had given the composer a renewed surge of creativity for, whereas the previous seven years had not seen a great deal of new music, the following period was to prove more prolific. First off the stocks was By the Sleepy Lagoon, described as a Valse-Serenade, which at first failed to make its mark with the public although it became a massive hit ten years later.
Then he was asked by impresario André Chariot to write a ballet for the opening of the new Cambridge Theatre in London. The upshot was The Seven Fauns, retitled The Seven Brothers, further retitled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but finally known simply as The Seven Dwarfs. Unfortunately, the show was not a success. The conductor Stanford Robinson suggested that Coates expand the score into a full concert work but it took eight years for this proposal to be acted upon. Having at last completed this adaptation, the famous Walt Disney cartoon promptly appeared and completely monopolised the fairy-tale! At first, the composer was disheartened but matters were nicely resolved when Phyl drew up a new scenario, inspired by the beautiful walled garden of Ivy Grange, their country house, enabling Coates to redraft his work as The Enchanted Garden.
A family tragedy was narrowly averted in early 1931 when Austin was struck down with a near fatal illness. For the next two years, while the little boy made a slow recovery, Phyl lived in Sussex with her son while the composer divided his time between the town and country residences. New works continued to emerge, however. There was the Suite From Meadow to Mayfair, a musical acknowledgement that home was now very much in London, and the happy childhood days in rural Nottinghamshire were firmly a thing of the past. Also from his pen came the Concert Valse Dancing Nights (originally called Autumn Woods) and, once again to a scenario by his wife, the Ballet The Jester at the Wedding, written in just six weeks in 1932. An unusual creation about this time was Coates' one and only arrangement of another composer's music - Richard Rodgers' With a Song in My Heart. This led to an invitation from the Columbia Gramophone Co. to give orchestral treatment to three of his best-known songs, resulting in two Symphonic Rhapsodies, one on I Pitch My Lonely Caravan At Night, the other on I Heard You Singing and Bird Songs At Eventide.
But before he turned to this commission, he completed the composition of a work that had been inspired by views from his Baker Street flat - the London Everyday Suite, soon shortened to just the London Suite, whose last movement, the Knightsbridge March was to spread the name of Eric Coates far and wide. The fascinating story of its subsequent recording and its ultimate fame through the BBC programme In Town Tonight will be told later on.
Suffice it to say, for the moment, that the composer found himself with a popular success of nigh unimaginable proportions! He quickly cashed in on it by coming up with the March London Bridge, dedicated to the producer of In Town Tonight, Eric Maschwitz. The latter duly brought added publicity to the new piece by broadcasting the commercial recording session (and its attendant rehearsal) from the Columbia studios. And it was Maschwitz who, in 1935, invited Coates to appear in a BBC concert as part of a series devoted to famous living composers. A new work was created for the occasion, the Suite The Three Men. That same year also saw the somewhat un-Coatesian Song of Royalty, described by its composer as "a devotional work...a prayer", setting words by Phyl and written for the Silver Jubilee of King George v.
In 1936, while on a visit to Belfast, Coates met the Danish virtuoso saxophonist Sigurd Rascher, and was greatly impressed by this remarkable musician. The latter's request for a special piece, however, did not meet with an immediate response. In fact, Coates put the whole thing out of his mind and, a few weeks later, he was obliged to effect a similar stalling exercise when the Director of the Folkestone Festival asked for a new work. Coates replied that he would only agree if the Director could engage the services of Rascher - an achievement the composer thought most unlikely.
But, on his return from a hastily-arranged visit to Sweden where he conducted a concert of his music, he found a letter saying that Rascher had, in fact, been engaged and so Coates had no choice but to get to work quickly. The upshot was the Saxo-Rhapsody, performed to great acclaim at the 1936 Folkestone Festival. That year also saw the completion of the much-demanded follow-up to the London Suite of three years earlier - the London Again Suite.
In 1937, the Coates family sold their Sussex cottage and moved to the charming, aforementioned Ivy Grange. It was the year of the Springtime Suite, the Serenade For Your Delight and the March The Seven Seas. It was also the year which found the composer making his first appearance on that intriguing new invention, television, conducting some of his own music. 1938, as already mentioned, witnessed the emergence of The Enchanted Garden from the score of The Seven Dwarfs while 1939 brought about the reluctant disposal of the pleasant ivy-covered country house. It was too much of an idyllic temptation for the man who needed the activity and turmoil of London life in order to compose.
But, of course, there was also the approach of war and with it, there came another creative hiatus. Little appeared except the Concert Valse Footlights and the Romance Last Love. For months, Coates wrote nothing until, one day, Phyl suggested he should compose something for the staff at the Red Cross depot where she worked. The idea appealed to him and he duly came up with a stirring march which, taking its cue from the line "Calling all cars" in a cops-and-robbers movie which he and his wife saw one night at nearby Madame Tussaud's, was duly titled Calling All Workers. It, too, benefited from radio use as a signature tune, being used to introduce the BBC's celebrated Music While You Work.
Shortly after the first performance of Calling All Workers, the composer moved out of London to his in-laws' house in the country to escape the seemingly incessant noise of the bombing and anti-aircraft gunfire. In the peace and solitude of these new surroundings, he set to work on a Overture, finishing it remarkably quickly. But, for the moment, he did nothing with it, feeling, as he put it, "that it belongs to something else". Then, manifesting once again that typically restless spirit, he moved back to his London flat.
About this time, news was received of the belated success of By the Sleepy Lagoon as a song in America (where it was known as just Sleepy Lagoon). In fact, it became a Number One hit, and also won considerable acclaim in Britain. It went on to become a popular favourite worldwide, albeit in three different guises - as a beguine, as a slow waltz and as a slow fox-trot!
Meantime, Coates undertook many conducting engagements, including a brief tour, organised by Jack Hylton, of provincial theatres and music halls in the North of England with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Then, in May 1941, on Government instructions, the family had to vacate their London flat. They moved to Buckinghamshire where the composer worked on a new score, the Suite Four Centuries, which had been asked for by his very first publisher, Boosey (now Boosey & Hawkes). Later that year, another march appeared, Over To You, dedicated to "all who make and fly our aircraft", as well as a much more intimate piece for viola and piano, written especially for Coates' beloved old teacher, Lionel Tertis.
But the creative spell didn't last. In the autumn of that year, the family moved house yet again, this time to a picturesque eighteenth-century cottage in Hampstead. Coates succumbed to recurring bouts of ill-health which proved disastrous as far as composition was concerned. 1942 produced two marches (London Calling and The Eighth Army) and that was about all. The following year saw the production by him of a detailed report, commissioned by the BBC, into the state of light music on the radio, a project which necessitated a substantial amount of research by the composer. A number of his findings and recommendations were accepted but, on the whole, Coates failed to bring about any significant lessening of the inherent snobbery within the Corporation which tended to take a rather dismissive view of light music.
The family was now back in central London. 1944 brought yet another march, Salute the Soldier, which Coates conducted at an open-air concert in Trafalgar Square, but inspiration for large-scale works still eluded him. In fact, he seriously began to consider that his composing days were over. The veil was, however, finally lifted as the result of a letter from a clergyman proposing an orchestral suite based on The Three Elizabeths, namely Elizabeth Tudor, Elizabeth of Glamis and Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth II). Although the suggestion was made in 1943 - and the idea appealed greatly to the composer - several months elapsed before Coates got around to actually committing anything to paper. Amidst the full onslaught of seemingly incessant raids by German flying bombs, he started writing, but not before he had come to the startling realisation that his unpublished Overture of three years earlier formed a perfect first movement of the suite-to-be. He made excellent progress with the new score but felt that the orchestration should be carried out in a quieter locale. And so, he and Phyl took a hotel room in Worcestershire's Vale of Evesham for three months, where the peaceful surroundings and pleasant autumn weather combined to provide ideal working conditions. The work was duly finished and dedicated to Elizabeth of Glamis, later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. It received its first performance in a Christmas Eve broadcast by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Coates conducting.
Once again, the compositional muse fell silent but the conducting went on. Coates also made some trips back to his home town of Hucknall where he was very much the local hero. 1946 brought forward just one work, the Television March, written for the re-opening of BBC Television. It also found the composer on board ship bound for America as part of a delegation from the Performing Right Society heading for the International Congress of Publishers and Authors in Washington. He and his wife had a most enjoyable time and he conducted a broadcast concert of his own music while over there, but the exertions of the trip may have been too much for, by the time he returned to England, he was suffering from a bad attack of bronchial asthma. It took several months to fully recover but, by 1947, he was more or less back to good health and able to entertain guests to the Congress which, that year, was being held in Britain.
Another foreign excursion followed in 1948, again on behalf of the Performing Right Society, the destination now being Argentina. But again, ill-health threatened the curtailment of Coates' activities in the early stages, although he rallied sufficiently to conduct some concerts and broadcasts. Such was the impact he made in Argentina that he was invited to stay on for a three-month tour, an offer which, though tempting, he declined.
Creative work was still at a low ebb and it proved another one-work year with the March Music Everywhere. It was later observed by the composer's son Austin that this fallow period coincided with his father's giving up smoking, on doctor's orders (he had been a very heavy smoker since boyhood). There could, indeed, be some truth in this theory for inspiration did seem to flow again when Coates subsequently returned to the nicotine!
The composer occupied his time during this musically unproductive interlude in an unusual but most entertaining manner. He had been supplying details about his early years in Hucknall in response to letters from the impresario Eric Morley. Phyl noticed that this reminiscing seemed to be having a beneficial effect on her ailing husband and it was primarily at her prompting that Coates duly embarked on his autobiography. It proved a long job, but it was finally finished in the winter of 1952/53 and published under the title of Suite in Four Movements.
1952 saw a gradual return to composition, beginning with the Intermezzo The Unknown Singer (actually based on an idea of some years earlier), and a march, originally called The Green Land but retitled Rhodesia. He also undertook more conducting engagements, taking full advantage of his apparent full restoration of health. 1953 witnessed another march, Men of Trent, while the following year's BBC Festival of Light Music featured the Waltz Sweet Seventeen. This utilised a theme Coates had written seven years earlier as one of a number of ideas for a musical based on a book by his son but which, alas, came to naught.
The vast majority of Coates' orchestral music throughout his life was written either to a specific commission or in fulfilment of contractual obligations. 1954, however, was to produce a glorious exception - although for years, the world never knew the true circumstances of its conception. This was the March The Dam Busters, which was to become a hit record, sell more copies of the printed music than any other orchestral work by the composer, and win him an Ivor Novello Award. The full story will be told later on. And finally, 1954 also brought forth The Scent of Lilac - the last of what now amounted to around 160 songs.
Sound and Vision was the next march from the composer's pen, written in the summer of 1955 for ATV. Another television organisation's request for a similar piece was met with nothing more imaginative than the Seven Seas March of 1937 reserviced under the company's name of South Wales and the West. He accepted more conducting engagements, both in Britain and abroad, and continued to enjoy an ever-growing popularity. In 1956, just a few days before his seventieth birthday, he appeared at the Henry Wood Proms in London's Royal Albert Hall to conduct his Four Centuries Suite which received a huge ovation necessitating an encore of the last movement. Earlier in the year, he had composed the Intermezzo Impression of a Princess, dedicated to Princess Margaret. Like Sweet Seventeen, it too had its origins in an earlier - and, regrettably, abortive - dramatic collaboration with Austin.
But now, his health was failing again and this time it was more serious. He was having problems with his sight and generally becoming weaker. There were two final compositions - a hymn, God's Great Love Abiding and a march, High Flight. He managed to summon up the strength for a handful of conducting engagements in 1957, including an appearance before Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Festival Hall conducting, appropriately enough, the orchestra which, since its foundation in 1952, had become closely associated with his music, the BBC Concert Orchestra.
In early December, Eric and Phyl Coates drove down to their country retreat. In earlier years, the invigorating Sussex air would have revived the ailing composer, but now it was too late. On the night of December 17, 1957, he suffered a severe stroke. Four days later, he was dead.
Miniature Overture: The Merrymakers
This short, sparkling piece - initially called A New Year's Overture - was begun in the last part of 1922 and completed on January 28, 1923. It stands in a direct line of descent from Edward German and, while it is by no means lacking in individual Coatesian touches, the influence of the older composer is, at times, overwhelming. Composition took place while Coates was living in a flat at the top of his wife's parents' house, a residence he found particularly attractive and which "looked down on to a wide road with its abundance of trees where the birds sang all day".
The feeling of well-being that this delightful environment engendered pervades the whole of The Merrymakers. Right from the very outset, high spirits abound. The energetic main theme spins along with tremendous verve, generating its own momentum in a skilful but natural manner. It creates its own little linking passage to a second melody, which is more warmly lyrical in character. This idea is then subjected to a little light modification but it soon has to make way for the first theme which offers itself up for more extensive development before it returns in its original form, suitably varied as befits a conventional recapitulation. Having just stolen the limelight, as it were, from its companion, the first theme now seeks to make amends by building up an aura of expectancy in preparation for the return of the lyrical idea. But, amusingly, it rather overdoes things, for when the second theme does re-appear, it isn't quite as ceremonial as the build-up has led the listener to believe. It is, after all, a slightly prim and proper little tune and cannot really be expected to dress up in "Pomp and Circumstance" colours. It is all good fun, however, and part of the general good nature of this splendid miniature masterpiece.
1. Covent Garden
It was this work, more than any other, which finally made Eric Coates a familiar name with the general public. The composer wrote it during the autumn and early winter of 1932, finishing it on November 25 of that year and following what was now, for him, a tried and trusted format, the three-movement suite. The inspiration, as pointed out earlier, came quite simply from the vistas available to him from his top-floor Baker Street apartment. In varying degrees of detail, he was able to pick out the theatre roofs and the fruit and vegetable market in Covent Garden to the east; the unmistakable outline of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament at Westminster would have been visible to the southeast, while to the southwest, across the green expanse of Hyde Park, Knightsbridge would have stood out quite clearly.
Coates was rather pleased with what was, in essence, a musical tribute to his adopted home town. The BBC arranged the first performance of the London Suite, which was conducted by Joseph Lewis and, by all accounts, the work was respectably, if not outstandingly, played. But the reception was not what the composer had hoped for. It just didn't seem to capture the popular imagination and, in particular, it failed to impress Arthur Brooks, recording manager of the Columbia Company into whose studios Coates was shortly to venture. The plan was to commit the Two Symphonic Rhapsodies to wax, and the composer had hoped an invitation might be forthcoming to include the new suite as well. None materialised but, even so, the ever-optimistic Coates went along to the sessions with the carefully-prepared score and parts of the London Suite in his case.
Fortunately for him, he found himself facing an ensemble which turned out to be the newly-formed London Philharmonic Orchestra, less than a year old but already a formidable body of players. They succeeded in recording the scheduled pieces in under two and a quarter hours, meaning that there was still nearly fifty minutes of session time left. Not entirely willingly, Arthur Brooks consented to the London Suite being brought out. According to Coates' own account, they started the playthrough of the first movement at 12.22. By 12.50, two movements were safely recorded. All that remained was the Knightsbridge March. The first take was marred by a playing error; the second take was musically perfect - except that, at the last minute, the wax master disc was damaged. And now, there was no more time to fit in another complete performance. The composer decided to test his luck, putting faith in the high reputation he enjoyed among his fellow musicians. Would the orchestra agree to play into unpaid overtime? A tantalising pause, a few querying glances, and back came the answer - yes. The Columbia Gramophone Company, although they didn't know it then, was in possession of its best-selling record.
At first, however, the Suite's prospects still didn't look too rosy. Even the publishers baulked at the idea of printing it. They felt it was too difficult for the average orchestra and made no more than a tentative offer to issue the second movement. But fortune was preparing to smile on the composer. Unbeknown to him, in the depths of the BBC headquarters in Broadcasting House, little more than half a mile (about one kilometre) from his apartment, a new programme was in the final stages of planning. This was In Town Tonight, destined to run, on and off, for 27 years and become one of the most celebrated radio shows of all time. With just hours to go before the first broadcast, producer Eric Maschwitz decided he would like a signature tune and asked the BBC Gramophone Library to send up some potentially suitable recordings. Amongst the pile of discs was the newly-pressed London Suite. Maschwitz played it and the moment he heard the Knightsbridge March, he knew he had found the right piece.
On the night of November 18, 1933, Phyl Coates was listening to the radio. She heard some music she thought she recognised. She called out to her husband, who was working in his photographic darkroom, "I can't think what it is". "Neither can I" replied the composer, who was far more interested at that moment in his pictures. Half an hour later, when Phyl heard the same piece a second time, she once again called out to her darkroom-ensconced husband. "Isn't it Knightsbridge? They seem to be using it as a signature tune for something". Coates merely contented himself with the laconic observation that "it cannot do the Suite any harm", and once more turned to his photography.
The only thing that suffered any harm was the Coates family's peace and quiet which, within minutes of the end of the programme, was completely and utterly shattered. The phone never stopped ringing and, within a day or two, an avalanche of mail began to arrive. The caretaker of the block of flats had to take on the extra duty of shielding the composer from enthusiastic admirers who tried to get in to see Coates. Only those visitors who knew the specially-agreed doorbell sign - rung in the rhythm of the opening four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - were admitted! And life was no quieter at the BBC. Within two weeks, there were no fewer than 20,000 enquiries, all asking the same thing. What was the wonderful piece of music which introduced and signed off In Town Tonight? It seemed that the Knightsbridge March had touched a chord in the nation's soul as no other work had done since Elgar's Land of Hope and Glory.
Covent Garden, described as a "tarantelle", is a lively movement, marvellously descriptive of the bustle associated with that part of London. It is a tarantelle only in that it employs that dance's 6/8 rhythm. The main theme itself has a Cockney exuberance about it. Quite why Coates decided to feature the popular tune that Charles Edward Horn wrote when he set Robert Herrick's poem Cherry Ripe, is not clear. Perhaps the reference to cherries was natural in describing Covent Garden with its fruit and vegetable market. Or maybe he just happened to spot a similarity in the interval between the first two notes of his tune and the older melody. What is indisputable, however, is the utter charm and beauty of his treatment of Horn's lovely theme.
Westminster carries the subheading of "Meditation". It is a beautiful piece of writing and is the perfect response to those who occasionally accuse Coates of being brash. The lovely opening chord sequence played by strings and woodwind trace the outline of the main theme that soon emerges on a solo cello. This lyrical outpouring eventually gives way to a slightly more pressing idea presented by violins and horns which builds to an imposing climax before subsiding to allow the first tune to return, now played by all the strings. In this full orchestral guise, the quasi-religioso flavour - albeit, a little à la Ketèlbey - is more in evidence, intended, perhaps, to portray the great Abbey at Westminster. There will, however, be no doubt as to the source of inspiration of the final bars.
And so to Knightsbridge, the great march that captured a nation's imagination. Let the composer himself speak: "It is extraordinary the way in which the Knightsbridge March never fails to rouse the dullest of audiences. I cannot understand the reason for it, but over and over again, when I have been conducting it in public, both in this country and abroad, the moment the double-basses begin the reiterated quaver beats at the opening I can feel a sensation of excited anticipation coming from the audience and striking me in the back of the head". Pages have been written attempting to explain the remarkable appeal of this fine piece, but no words can even begin to account for its magic. In bald terms, it contains two splendid principal themes, a riveting fanfare figure and truly masterly orchestration. But the end result is much, much more than that!
Cinderella: A Phantasy
This was the third of the "Phantasies" inspired by the bedtime stories which Phyl Coates used to read to her small son and which seemed to appeal to the composer as much as they did to his off spring. It was completed on September 9, 1929 and first performed at an Eastbourne Festival concert on November 28 that year, conducted by Coates himself, who was able to enjoy the overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception accorded to the piece. The composer sprinkled his score with headings to indicate precisely what is happening at various points but, in truth, the famous fairy story is so clearly portrayed in the music that these written interpolations are almost superfluous. A detailed preface was provided, as follows:
"This Phantasy is scored for the usual full orchestra and can be used either as a concert piece or as a ballet. It is dedicated to the "Cinderella" of our imagination.
Opening with a quiet clarinet solo (andante 4/4) Cinderella is discovered sitting sadly alone by the fire. Four reiterated notes on the flutes and harp then give us the keynote of the piece which is the Fairy Godmother's call "Cinderella!" This is followed by an agitato 12/8, where the Fairy Godmother calls her attendants, who dress Cinderella for the party - the fairy coach arrives, and she is driven away (allegro 2/4), the woodwind and small woodblock representing the ponies' hoofs. A momentary change in the character of the music (strings descending chromatically, and upward scales in the woodwind) show a moment of anxiety for Cinderella, which soon disappears as she nears the Palace. As she enters the ballroom we hear the music of the dance in full swing. She surveys the dancers, and the music broadens as the Prince sees her and, enraptured by her beauty, approaches and asks her to dance. She hesitates shyly for a moment (divided strings, woodwind arpeggi and glockenspiel). She and the Prince then dance together to the principal valse theme (valse lento, cello and oboe). This works up to a climax, at the height of which the gong strikes twelve; through this we hear the Fairy Godmother's call of "Cinderella!" played by the trumpets ff. A rapid ascending chromatic scale on the woodwind shows Cinderella running from the ballroom to her fairy coach, leaving one little slipper at the Prince's feet. A long ff trem. on the strings, dying down to a pp, marks the passing of time, and we find ourselves back once more with Cinderella in front of the fire. The same clarinet solo as in the introduction denotes her loneliness. She fancies she hears her Fairy Godmother calling her again, and dreams of the Prince.
The Prince's drummers and trumpeters are heard in the distance. He is searching the town for the owner of the little slipper. This fanfare of trumpets leads to a tempo di marcia, a humorous little march played by woodwind and brass alone. The orchestration becomes fuller as the Prince and his attendants approach, reaching the climax as they enter Cinderella's house. A sudden diminuendo, and we hear the Fairy Godmother's call of "Cinderella!" played by the woodwind and glockenspiel, during which Cinderella's sisters are vainly trying on the slipper. We now return to the Valse theme, played broadly in 4/4, and the final climax is reached as the shoe slips on to Cinderella's little foot. The phantasy finishes here with a brief return to the march theme (allegro molto) and they all live happily ever after".
The Selfish Giant: A Phantasy
Written to a commission from the Eastbourne Festival, Coates completed this work in September 1925 and conducted the first performance in November of that year. It caused something of a sensation because of what were then deemed to be daring syncopations - although to present-day ears, it all sounds comparatively tame. At that time, Coates was well acquainted with the music of the dance bands, the result of his frequent nocturnal visits to various clubs and restaurants where he used to tread a nifty fox-trot, Charleston and the like with his wife. He was especially partial to Jack Hylton and His Band which took The Selfish Giant into its repertoire, even playing it on one occasion at the Royal Albert Hall! But the jazzy influences did not go down well with 'straight' musicians and Chappell was too nervous to publish the score. Fortunately, Boosey & Co. were more adventurous and they saw the work safely into print in 1926.
Once again, the scene is admirably set in a preface to the score:
"The work was inspired by Oscar Wilde's story of the Selfish Giant. The composer has not depicted the story literally, but has tried to illustrate the general idea of the desolation of the Giant's Garden where it is always Winter and no birds sing because of his selfishness in not allowing the children to play there, of the Giant's heart eventually being softened by the entrance of the children into his garden, and the awakening of Spring.
Starting with a short introduction, which is meant to depict the desolation of the Giant's Garden, there follows an Allegro vivace which illustrates the North Wind, Hail and Snow making a playground of the Garden. Next comes the Giant's Theme, given out by the brass, depicting the Giant's relentless character. The Theme of Happiness then tries to enter, but is eventually crushed by the Giant's Theme, but becoming more insistent, it eventually takes possession and, after a climax, the Theme of Happiness is heard in full.
Then follows a brief return to the Theme of the North Wind intermingled with the Giant's Theme.
The Giant's ill-will is finally silenced by the entrance of the children into his garden. The Children's Dance Theme starts hesitatingly, but quickly gains confidence and eventually leads into the Theme of Happiness.
By this time, the Giant's heart has melted, Spring wakes in the garden and all is peace".
London Again: Suite:
1. Oxford Street
2. Langham Place
It was obvious from the first broadcast of In Town Tonight, with the subsequent huge popularity of the London Suite in general and the Knightsbridge March in particular, that the public would be looking to Coates to provide a follow-up. As already mentioned, the London Bridge March appeared quite quickly, but the sequel proper didn't emerge until 1936. The composer completed the new piece on February 18 of that year and, anticipating that people, on hearing it, would say something like "Ooh, isn't that London again", decided to pre-empt them by actually giving it that title - London Again Suite. He took as his points of departure the famous shopping thoroughfare, Oxford Street, Langham Place, the home of Broadcasting House, and that most exclusive part of London's West End, Mayfair. Appropriately enough, in view of the subject of the second movement, the first performance was given in a broadcast by the BBC Theatre Orchestra, conducted by Stanford Robinson, on April 26, with the public première following twelve days later when it was played by the Worthing Municipal Orchestra under the composer's direction. It was well received but failed to achieve anything like its predecessor's popularity.
This time, the March comes first. It is immediately apparent that Oxford Street is a close relation of Knightsbridge, albeit a little brasher in nature. As before, there is a memorable fanfare figure and two principal themes, the second only a little broader in feel, and supported by a busy woodwind accompaniment. As with all Coates marches, the tempo is very brisk. The composer often bewailed the fact that conductors and orchestras wouldn't play his music at the required speed and once observed that "my marches are not for marching and my waltzes are not for dancing"!
The second movement is described as an "Elegie" and suggests a curious mix of associations. The most prominent figure is the repeated three note phrase sounded near the beginning by horns, harp and lower strings. It re-appears at strategic points and also forms the basis of the long-breathed tune introduced by unison strings. The notes of this motif are B flat, B flat (down an octave), C. Ignore the flats and you have BBC, whose headquarters are based in Langham Place. So, this movement is intended as a tribute to the organisation that had done so much to promote Coates' compositions. It would certainly account for the unexpected interpolation of the Knightsbridge March halfway through! But that doesn't explain the deep vein of nostalgia and solemn pride that pervades the music. However, Langham Place was, at that time, also the home of the Queen's Hall where Coates had played for many years in Henry Wood's Orchestra. So, perhaps this movement is additionally meant to be a salute to the Hall which must have held many fond memories for him - a reminder of his playing days, now long gone.
By contrast, Mayfair is simple and straightforward although, in truth, it isn't quite up to the standard of the best Coates waltzes. Perhaps the composer was trying to suggest a society ball but, whatever his intentions, a little too much Johann Strauss and Waldteufel seem to have crept into the proceedings. Not until the last few bars does the composer finally succeed in establishing his own unmistakable personality. Even so, it is a superbly crafted piece of music, with a generous offering of musical ideas.
Calling All Workers: March
One of the three best-known Eric Coates marches - the others being Knightsbridge and The Dam Busters - this fine piece was written at Phyl's instigation in 1940. It has already been told how Phyl was, at that time, working at a Red Cross depot helping to produce medical supplies and it was she who suggested to her husband that he write a piece that would inspire her and her companions as they sat for long hours at their sewing-machines turning out bandages and dressings. The result was the March Calling All Workers, which begins with a rousing, inspirational fanfare and whose Trio theme carries a busy counterpoint imitating the motion of a sewing-machine. Once again, the BBC broadcast the first performance when it was played on September 1 by the BBC Theatre Orchestra, conducted by the indefatigable Stanford Robinson. Within just a few weeks, the Corporation had chosen it as the signature tune for their celebrated Music While You Work programme, which had begun the previous June, and thus Calling All Workers quickly became one of the best known tunes in the country, rivalling even the Knightsbridge March. The score is prefaced with the words "To go to one's work with a glad heart, and to do that work with Earnestness and Goodwill" and dedicated "to All Who Work".
The Dam Busters: March
For much of his life, Eric Coates was pursued by the film industry, on both sides of the Atlantic, which was eager for him to put his talents at their disposal. For much of his life, Eric Coates simply said no to such requests. A film composer has to accept that his music is likely to be modified, adjusted and generally re-organised in order to accommodate the director's visual conceptions. But being the fastidious craftsman that he was, Coates was not prepared to see his carefully fashioned scores manipulated in this way. However, in 1954, the following intriguing little episode took place.
In that year, Associated British Pictures were hard at work on a film in which they had invested a good deal of time and money. R.C. Sheriff had produced a screenplay based on books by Wing Commander Guy Gibson and Paul Brickhill telling the remarkable story of the wartime air raids on German dams using the revolutionary 'bouncing bomb'. It was to be a prestigious picture and the producers wanted only the best - and that included the music. They discussed the matter with the studios' Music Director, Louis Levy. The name of Eric Coates inevitably arose, but Levy quickly pointed out that the best they could hope for from that quarter was a march which, nevertheless, could be used as the basis of a film score. This idea was immediately accepted and Levy got on the phone to Teddy Holmes at Chappell to ask if such a proposal was acceptable. Holmes said he would call the composer and find out. He duly did so and put the question directly to Coates - "Do you think you could write such a march?" There was a slight pause and then, to Teddy Holmes' astonishment, back down the phone came the reply, "Yes, I think I finished it yesterday".
And that was, indeed, the case. With no commission or request, and knowing absolutely nothing about the film in progress, the composer had felt compelled to write out a march which he had had in his head for sometime. The finished score was barely twenty-four hours old and was lying on his desk. All it needed was a title and it now looked as if it had got one. The shrewd Holmes told Coates not to let on that the work was already in existence and promptly rang Levy to say that he thought the composer would come up with something and needed twelve days to complete the task. No doubt he also went on to negotiate a suitably generous fee!
The march was duly delivered and used in the film along with the additional score brilliantly fashioned from it by Leighton Lucas. It may not have been conceived with the film in mind but few doubted that movie and music matched each other to perfection. Coates was to write only about four more pieces in the remaining three years he had to live so it is good to know that, to all intents and purposes, his creative life ended with a resounding success.
© 1993 Tim McDonald
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