About this Recording
8.223521 - COATES, E.: Springtime Suite / Four Ways Suite
English  French  German 

Eric Coates (1886–1957)
Orchestral Works


Light music’s golden years were during the first half of the twentieth century. Of the countless composers who wrote for the middlebrow listeners of seaside and festival orchestras, salon groups, café orchestras and broadcasting light orchestras, the name Eric Coates stands out as a master composer of beautiful melodies and wonderful orchestrations enhanced with a refinement, sophistication and truly symphonic orchestral sense that few light-music composers could match.

Born in Nottinghamshire in 1886, Coates had a pedigree classical training at the Royal Academy of Music, with Frederick Corder for composition and Lionel Tertis for viola. He became a freelance viola player, rising to principal viola of Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1913, where no doubt he would have played in many first British performances. He left in 1919 to dedicate his lime to composing songs and light music, writing (in all) 160 songs, thirteen suites, four phantasies, one ballet, seventeen marches and 24 other short orchestral works. His contract with his publisher Chappells called for one major orchestral work a year, that is a suite or phantasy, and one short orchestral piece, such as a waltz, a march, a serenade or a romance. This CD contains a selection of these major and shorter orchestral works.

The suite Four Ways was Coates’s Fifth Suite and dedicated to his friend, the conductor Basil Cameron, who had been a violinist with Coates in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra. It was given its first performance at the Harrogate Festival on 23rd September 1927. The four movements take their ideas from different parts of the world. The North is a march using the Scottish tune Ca’ the Yowes. This, incidentally, was to be Coates’s first ever march, a medium he was to make spectacularly his own. The second movement is an Italian-sounding waltz, the third a Chinese-sounding scherzo, but the fourth movement looks towards America and its jazz and dance rhythms.

During the 1920s, American dance music had begun to sweep across Europe in forms like the Charleston and Black Bottom. Coates was intrigued by this early type of jazz and its syncopated rhythms. The musical establishment, however, was not, for they must have sensed that it would spell the end of music as they knew it. One Henry Coward addressed the Incorporated Society of Musicians thus: “We must ban jazz”. Coates, now a national figure, responded by writing syncopated music under the pseudonym of Jack Arnold, but in 1925 he wrote two light syncopated pieces under his own name, following this with the movement Westway and his Four Ways Suite. A reviewer commented, “If only jazz was agreeable as Mr. Coates makes it out to be, there would not he half the outcry against it! Mr. Coates has too much native refinement to give a faithful idea of the vulgarities and brutalities of the Charleston or Black Bottom. It needs a few blatant, shrieking discords”.

In the late 1920s, Coates and his wife bought a house by the sea at Selsey, Sussex, as a retreat from their London flat. The surroundings inspired a whole series of short pieces, including Lazy Nights (1932), but Sleepy Lagoon (1930) was to become the most successful. Inspired by the fading evening light of Bognor Regis across the calm sea, it at first only attracted moderate success. However, in the 1940s the piece was transformed into a slow foxtrot by an American dance-orchestra, and it became a spectacular hit. It was Coates’s second great money-making success, and, like many of his pieces, it became the signature-tune of a long-running BBC programme, in this case Desert Island Discs, started in 1948 where it remains to this day.

Coates’s first great money-making success, however, was the march from his London suite Knightsbridge, which became the signature-tune to the, nightly BBC programme In Town Tonight. Record sales passed the 100,000 mark in the first year.

It was with the rise of the BBC in the 1930s and the power of broadcasting that Coates was to become one of the very first composers to graduate from being a well-known light-music composer to a household name. His music entered the musical consciousness of the nation as many of his marches became BBC signature-tunes. By the end of the 1940s, a Coates march, with its energy and optimism, came to reflect the decade in the nation’s mind. His wartime march 8th Army was dedicated to General Montgomery and his Eighth Army for their Alamein victory in October 1942. First performed by the BBC Northern Orchestra, it was thereafter used by the BBC as the signature-tune to its Middle East transmissions, then becoming a theme song for Michael Balcon’s film about infantry in Libya Nine Men.

During the 1930s, the BBC formed many of its light-music orchestras, including the BBC Theatre Orchestra (later renamed the BBC Concert Orchestra). They gave the first performance many of Coates’s works, including the concert waltz Footlights (1939) and the romance Last Love (1939).

Springtime was Coates’s eleventh suite, and one of his finest, though it never achieved the popularity of the others. Written in 1937, its first movement Fresh Morning, with its jaunty 6/8 rhythm, seems to reflect the age before the First World War and the music of composer Edward German. The second movement Noon Day with its soulful violin solo conjures up a fading memory of a lost age. The third movement, Dance of the Twilight, however, is a modem, optimistic Coates waltz.

A year earlier, Coates had written his only purely abstract symphonic music, a concerto for saxophone and orchestra. He had met the virtuoso saxophonist Sigurd Raschèr, who commissioned him a work for the 1936 Folkestone Festival. Coates had a fascination with the saxophone, having first used it in the movement Westward from his Four Ways Suite. He was to use it also in Man about Town from his Three Men Suite, the work Raschèr first heard at their meeting in Belfast.

The Saxo-Rhapsody, as it became known, is a nine-minute virtuosic display that Coates wrote in less than one month. Cast in one movement, an energetic central Allegro vivace is surrounded by a reflective Moderato section. Along with Debussy’s Rhapsody for Saxophone and Orchestra and concertos by Joseph Holbrooke and Lars-Erik Larsson, the Coates concerto is one of the major saxophone pieces from the earlier part of the century.

After the Second World War, Coates gave up smoking for health reasons. Then followed a few years of creative sterility. However, the last five years of his life saw him writing to form with ten final works, one of which, the Dambusters March, became his third and final money-making success. Coates had received offers of film scores many times but had always turned them down on account of the way directors would suddenly cut large chunks of music on a whim. He turned down Dambusters at first, but when persuaded by his publishers that the film was of national importance, he produced a march for the opening and closing titles. The Dambusters March has gained equal status with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 as one of the country’s great marches.

Coates always vowed that the latest march he had written would be the last, but after the spectacular success of Dambusters, he repeated the same formula for the Warwick film production of 1956, High Flight. The march of that title never had the same success as Dambusters, but it was destined to become his last composition as he died in December 1957.

Michael Ponder

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