This is the one Eric Coates CD I would recommend to
any listener who wished to discover the great talent of this popular
but often derided composer. Here we have a programme of not only the
three well written and finely scored orchestral fantasies but also the
famous London Suite and the Dambusters March. The programme
is completed with the early Miniature Suite and the lesser-known
Joyous Youth Suite.
The BBC Philharmonic under Rumon Gamba have done excellent
service in recent years to both film music and the lighter repertoire
and this disc is no exception. Beautifully produced – and it feels good
to hold! Great sound, a full eighty minute programme and enthusiastic
and convincing performances. Good sleeve notes too.
The earliest work given here is the attractive Miniature
Suite from 1911. This work was dedicated to Sir Henry Wood, the
conductor of its first performance at the 1911 season of the Promenade
Concerts. At that time Eric Coates was a member of the orchestra. In
fact in the same year he became the principal violist. The Suite is
full of good things but perhaps the most pleasing movement is the last
– the Scène du Bal. That took on a life of its own, often
being excerpted. The first time I heard it was, I believe, at a pier-head
concert in Llandudno!
The Dambusters March of 1954 is so well known
that it hardly needs comment. However the famous story associated with
this piece always bears retelling. Coates was approached by the film
company directors and asked if he had anything suitable for the new
film. He is supposed to have replied; ‘I think I finished it yesterday!’
He was able to repristinate an already composed march. Almost overnight
it was to become a top ten hit! Here we have a march that satisfies
all the requirements of its genre – good ‘patriotic’ stuff. Perhaps
the truth is more prosaic. The score for the Dambusters is written
with pure craftsmanship and perfectly supports the action. However it
is well known that the composer Leighton Lucas had a considerable input
to the score as well!
The Joyous Youth Suite is less well known than
the London and Three Elizabeth Suites. It was composed
in the early 1920s. According to the programme notes Coates and his
wife had been thrown out of their flat by a ‘battle-axe’ of a landlady.
They were lucky to find alternative accommodation with his in-laws in
St John’s Wood. After a period of being unsettled, Coates was now able
to write this happy music. He writes in his autobiography, ‘Two orchestral
works were the result of the charming sitting room which looked down
onto the wide road with its abundance of trees where the birds sang
all day: a suite ‘Joyous Youth’ and an overture, ‘The Merry
Makers’ This is indeed music that is filled with happiness, security
Eric Coates was very much inspired by the countryside
– his love of nature is obvious in the titles of many of his suite works.
However he was inspired and influenced by London life. Here he was to
spend much of his life. Perhaps this dichotomy is best summed up in
the ‘Meadow to Mayfair Suite.’
It is no surprise however that Coates was able to turn
is hand to music that is evocative of the great capital .His two suites,
London and London Again are attempts to portray various
sides of the city’s complex and fascinating life. The first suite presented
here was originally known as the London Everywhere. It is by
far the better known of the two.
This work contains what is probably the best known
of Eric Coates' pieces – the Knightsbridge March. It goes without
saying that it was used as the signature tune of the BBC Radio Programme
– ‘In Town Tonight’. It is now legendary that after the first broadcast
of this piece of music the BBC was inundated with over 30,000 phone
calls asking what the music was!
This is not programme music in the purest sense. However,
Coates makes use of a battery of orchestral and musical devices to point
up the atmosphere of each chosen location.
The first piece is a tone painting of Covent Garden
market – complete with the old English tune Cherry Ripe.
The form that the composer used was a Tarantelle, which by its
musical nature suggests all the business of the one time great fruit
The second movement is a nocturne really. It is almost
as if the composer was watching the sunrise on the Houses of Parliament
and the Abbey. There are very few people around in this meditation.
Coates uses the French horns to ring out the Westminster chimes. This
is a beautifully scored piece that shows the composer as a master of
The Suite ends with the famous Knightsbridge March.
Legend tells that Coates worked out this piece as he walked the streets
of London. Perhaps it is here that he finds the perfect description
of West End life. One cannot hear this music without mental images of
Harrods, red buses, London taxis and to my mind Christmas lights and
glistening pavements after rain.
It is not really appropriate to give a detailed description
if the Three Phantasies - The Selfish Giant, Cinderella
and The Three Bears. They follow the stories much as received
by tradition. Coates uses so much invention that tunes just seem to
tumble out one after the other. As with all of his music we are aware
of great skill in orchestration and part writing. Melodies are juxtaposed
and worked against each other.
These works were a musical interpretation of Coates'
wife's retelling of the famous tales. They were read aloud to their
son Austin. It is well known that The Three Bears Phantasy not
only 'tells the story' of the fairy tale but is also a depiction of
the Coates family life. These are fine works. If they were by any 'serious'
or 'heavy' composer they would be well and truly ensconced in the repertoire.
There was apparently another Phantasy written in all
but name - Snowwhite and the Seven Dwarfs. This was later reworked
as the ballet suite The Enchanted Garden. However this work was
never performed with dancers.
For many years it was almost a 'given' of classical
music scholarship that 'light' music was somehow less worthy of our
attention than the latest efforts of the serialists and the aleatory
composers. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the latest offering
of Stockhausen or Boulez was of greater intrinsic value than any work
which was deemed 'tuneful' or at least composed in a 'popular' style.
Yet somehow the wheel has gone the full circle. It
has become far more acceptable for listeners to listen to what interests
and moves them - irrespective of current critical canons.
The whole field of 'light' music - once so derided
- has benefited from this new sense of freedom. Composers such as Haydn
Wood, Billy Mayerl and Trevor Duncan have been given a new lease of
life. There is little danger of adverse criticism putting devotees off.
People are less likely to be concerned that Eric Coates' music may not
be deep but can be tuneful. There is an understanding that with the
likes of Coates, the craftsmanship that underlies the sheer attractiveness
and approachability of the music can be as great as many a 'heavy' writer.
Good technique is not the preserve of the profound composers.
Eric Coates is perhaps the epitome of this trend in
music. Excellent technique with tuneful melodies. Sentimental? Yes.
But who really cares. It is thoroughly enjoyable stuff that well deserves
its popularity. What this current disc has done is to give some favourites
and also repristinate some lesser-known minor masterpieces.