The Life and Music of Eric Coates
by Michael Payne
Ashgate Publishing, 2012; ISBN 978-1-4094-3408-5; 280 pages; hardback.
Eric Coates himself wrote the best book about Eric Coates, ‘The Uncrowned
King of Light Music’. His autobiography, Suite in Four Movements,
first published in 1953, was a joyous, non-technical account of his lifeand
music. It is also an invaluable historical record of what life was like as a
student of the Royal Academy of Music, as a player in concert and theatre orchestras,
and as a Londoner in the early years of the 20th century. I will
always treasure the memory of my friendship with the composer’s son, Austin
Coates and his encouragement to me to contribute a short foreword to the 1986
centenary reprint of Suite
in Four Movements.
Wisely, Michael Payne avoids repeating Eric Coates own autobiographical detail,
but concentrates on contributing new material plus useful and insightful analyses
of Coates’ music We learn of his pessimism about the future of light music
and his disappointments and conflicts with the BBC about what he saw as the
neglect of the genre and the infrequent inclusion of his music in Prom concerts:
a table shows the number of Prom performances of his music between 1909 and
1956. Yet, as Payne points out, despite the BBC claiming that Eric Coates’s
music did not chime well with the declared Prom classical music brief, the Corporation
did choose many of his works to be signature tunes for their radio and TV programmes
and were keen to broadcast his new pieces. Also noteworthy is the account of
the composer’s relationship with the Performing Rights Society (PRS).
Another eye-opening table shows a comparison of the PRS incomes of Eric Coates,
Haydn Wood and Albert Ketèlbey between 1914 and 1923. Especially interesting
is Payne’s detailed coverage of Eric Coates’s failed stage musical
projects; as one observer remarked, he never found a Gilbert as Sullivan had
done. We learn, too, a lot about the persistent illnesses that blighted Eric’s
life: his frequent bouts of influenza and bronchitis, for instance, and cataracts
towards the end of his life.
The book includes numerous musical examples, tables, lists of works and a selected
bibliography. There are also some pictures, well reproduced, of the composer
and his family. I cannot remember having seen these before.
There are some puzzling omissions. Coquette was one of Coates’
few unpublished pieces. Payne includes comment and a musical example from this
charming little piece but fails to add that it was recorded only by Eric Coates’s
champion, John Wilson, who as I understand the situation, rediscovered the piece
and included it in his 1996 album of 17 Eric Coates Orchestral Miniatures (ASV
CDWHL 2107). In fact mention of John Wilson is conspicuously absent from this
book. Payne’s list of radio and television programmes also omits a significant
segment of BBC TV’s One Show transmitted in August 2009 that was
devoted to Eric Coates’s Knightsbridge March.
It is nevertheless a most worthwhile addition to Eric Coates studies.
A most worthwhile addition to Eric Coates studies.