About this Recording
8.223806 - COATES, E.: Songs

Eric Coates (1886-1957)

Eric Coates (1886 - 1957)



With the rise of American dance music and the development of serialism, popular and serious music were set to part company. Up to this time the two types of music had shared common ground. The early Promenade Concerts in London had mixed symphonies and concertos with ballad songs, cornet and organ solos in their programmes. Sirni1arly, the famous ballad concerts designed to promote the latest published ballads also incorporated classical works. A strong middle ground, which was known as light music, existed between the two sides. The concert waltz, the suite for orchestra, the orchestral fantasy and the march were the hallmarks of the light music world, which was designed expressly for middle-brow listeners. Seaside and festival orchestras in Britain played a wealth of this music, written by countless composers, even up to the early 1960s, by which time serious and popular music cultures were so far apart that the middle ground simply ceased to exist.


The undisputed master of British light music was Eric Coates. He was born in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire in 1886 and entered the Royal Academy of London twenty years later to study the viola with Lionel Tertis and composition with Frederick Corder. This was the period of the great English musical renaissance, and Coates's fellow students included Arnold Bax, Montague Phillips, York Bowen, Myra Hess and Walton O'Donnell.


Professional work for Coates came initially on the viola. He was Tertis's prize student and played in the Hambourg String Quartet, followed by Beecham's symphony orchestra, then becoming principal viola of Henry Wood's Queens Hall Orchestra. In 1919, however, he left the playing world behind and embarked upon a career as a composer of light music. Three of his pieces entered the musical consciousness of the nation and perhaps most of the Western world as well. Knightsbridge, from his London Suite, became a BBC programme 5ignature tune; a waltz serenade called A Sleepy Lagoon became a number one seIler in both England and America, and the Dam Busters March, written for the film of the same name, became an equal in popularity to EIgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No.1.


Coates began his compositional career, however, by writing songs. He wrote 160 in all, the majority being written while he was still a professional viola- player. They were destined mostly for the commercial market, first in the form of baIlad songs and then later as popular songs. As this CD demonstrates, however, he did write songs in a more serious classical style and even composed a short song cycle.


Coates's first published works were the four old English songs set to Shakespeare's verse and written under Corder's guidance during his time at the Royal Academy of Music. The official first performance was given at a Promenade concert in 1909 by Mrs Olga Wood with her husband Henry conducting, and soon they were taken up by other well-known singers including Gervase Elwes, Carrie Tubb and Nellie Melba. Two other songs - When I am dead and The Outlaw's Song - come from his Academy period, but it was a song called Stonecracker John written in 1909 that propelled Coates into the baIlad song market. Sung by Harry Dearth at a Boosey BaIlad concert it became an instant success, selling thousands of copies. Stonecracker John was a new type of baIlad song, a West Country character song, and Coates naturally followed this up with a number of similar songs, including The Grenadier and Betty and Johnny. The lyrics for many of these early songs were by Fred Weatherly, the most sought- after baIlad lyric writer of the time. Coates was to say of Weatherly: "he had an astonishing flair for telling a story in verse which appealed not only to the intellectual but to the man in the street. His knack of painting pictures with his poems was uncanny".


TeIl me where is fancy bred and Sigh no more, ladies, again using Shakespeare's verse, were written for a performance of The Merchant of Venice at Caldicote Towers in 1912. Mill o' Dreams, the only published song cycle Coates wrote, with words by Nancy B. Marsland, was first performed in 1915 by Louise Dale at a Chappell's baIlad concert and repeated at a Prom concert that year. At Vesper Bell is a rare example of a more serious art song by Coates frorn the 1920s, but with The Fairy Tales of Ireland we have the finest example of Coates's baIlad song style.. This song became a great favourite with the Irish tenor John McCormack.


1925, the date of The little green balcony, saw a marked change in Coates's output as it dropped from the average seven songs to two songs a year. BaIlad songs were fast disappearing and making way for the more sophisticated popular song of the 1920s and 1930s. Royden Barrie, Christopher HasseIl and Coates's wife PhyIlis Black became his main lyric writers, but Coates's heart was really in writing orchestral music, and the songs were written mainly to fulfill his publisher's contract. Although he later stated that he found writing songs limiting, it is these later songs that show him at his finest.


The two songs of 1930 - Because I miss you so and The Young Lover - are especially good. A rich glorious melodic vocalline is supported by subtle piano writing that maintains the unity and intensifies the colour and effect of the vocal line. These are beautifully balanced songs that capture the very essence of their lyrics with the utmost refinement. As the 1930s progressed Coates w rote f ewer and f ewer songs, and Rise up and reach the stars of 1933 was to be the only fast song that Coates wrote. With his final songs Beautiful Lady Moon, Music of the Night, Your Name and Princess of the Dawn there came a marked change of style. With the bravura vocalline, big chord clusters in the piano part of almost orchestral dimensions, these songs were set to compete with the grand show numbers of the West End and Broadway musical stage. One is reminded a little, perhaps, of Ivor NoveIlo.


Chamber music did not figure at all in Coates's output. The only extant piece is a minuet from a Suite for string quartet, the other movements being written in turn by Frank Bridge, Hamilton Hart y, I. D. Davies and York Bowen, all commissioned by Coates and his coIleagues of the Hambourg String Quartet in 1908. There was also a souvenir called First Meeting for violin and piano (originally for viola and piano, according to Coates's son Austin) written in 1941 during his heyday of orchestral writing. It is dedicated to Austin, who tells this interesting story about the piece:


"Lionel Tertis and my father had always kept in touch and in the autumn of .1941 he asked my father for a short work to celebrate his half century of playing. By November the work was ready and Tertis came round to lunch. Afterwards we went into the drawing-room and Tertis and my father played it. Tertis was sight-reading but played as if he had known the work all his life. It was so beautiful I could never forget it. He was so delighted he insisted on their doing it again. But when he left after tea we knew it was the last time he would ever play it. Like all of them ...they were scared of touching anything that might be considered popular!"


Coates rearranged the work for violin and piano for publishing. It was given the title First Meeting and dedicated to Austin on his birthday. Although the original viola version no longer exists the present writer has taken the liberty of transcribing it back to viola and presenting it on this CD.


@ Michael Ponder


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