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Ernest John Moeran – His Life and Music
by Ian Maxwell
327 pages including appendices (The Moeran Mythology & Complete List of Works), bibliography and indexes The Boydell Press
This important and compelling new biography of the composer Ernest John Moeran underlines the issues facing any admirer drawn to discover the living beating heart of the artist behind the facade. With little or no access to primary source material, the reader must assume that the basic facts of a life are subject to little debate even if an interpretation of those essential truths may be. Author Ian Maxwell has written a book of who-dunnit-esque compulsion which, with a forensic objectivity, examines every element of what he describes as the “Moeran myth”. Not that Maxwell is anything but admiring of the composer – this is not a literary destruction, simply a process in which he seeks documentary proof for any previously received statement about Moeran and having found what he can he makes measured deductions based on the best available evidence.
The book is beautifully and logically laid out. The subtitle; “his life and music” gives lie to the basic format. Across the 327 pages of main text, Maxwell creates five chronological sub-sections which in turn divide into twenty chapters. These chapters are further broken down to focus on key compositions. Maxwell’s choice of “key compositions” is dictated either by the work’s significance within Moeran’s overall development or the way in which the chosen work displays key elements of Moeran’s compositional style. Whether for cost or copyright reasons there are almost no photographs included – a single rather poor quality image of Moeran and Peers Coetmore on their wedding day the exception [a better copy of the same image is included in Lionel Hill’s Lonely Waters]. Sixty-two interesting and well chosen music examples are given to support the analysed works.
Missing from this group of key works is the Symphony in G minor. Maxwell’s rationale for this is that the scale of the symphony would have required such a substantial amount of space that other significant information would have been sacrificed to keep the book within the publisher’s remit. While I can understand that logic, not to even allocate a brief analysis or musical ‘explanation’ of the largest single work Moeran wrote feels like a strange omission. Especially since Maxwell’s position on the motivation behind the work is significantly different to that in the previous substantial published study of the work by Geoffrey Self in his The Music of E J Moeran [Toccata Press 1986]. Self believed the work to be a requiem for Moeran’s fallen friends and contemporaries in World War 1 and in turn based on a Norfolk folksong The Shooting of his Dear. As I understand it, Maxwell feels this to be a flawed analysis but he directs the reader to Self’s book – where some 30 pages are devoted to that work – rather use valuable ‘new’ space contesting the theories of others.
The only other book devoted to Moeran was also published in the mid-1980’s [Stephen Wild’s E.J. Moeran published by Triad Press in 1973 is all but impossible to find]. This was the afore-mentioned personal and touching Lonely Waters – the dairy of a friendship by Lionel Hill [Thames Publishing 1985]. Given the amount of new archival material that has emerged in the intervening thirty five years it can be seen that a new study was overdue. Maxwell’s book originated in a doctoral thesis from 2014. But even in the seven years since then new material has emerged to supersede some of the conclusions there. The main problem facing the Moeran researcher is how much primary source material is missing. On a personal level Moeran did not leave any diaries, although he was an avid letter writer, most of the letters he received have been destroyed. Likewise as a composer there are few sketches or ‘early versions’ of works in any archives. Unlike Britten there are few if any juvenilia although circumstantial evidence is that Morean composed extensively in his youth – apparently he wrote an hour-long cello sonata for a school friend along with several quartets and violin sonatas. Maxwell suggests that he probably destroyed as much music as has survived. There is a recurring theme of Moeran telling artists or promoters or the BBC that a work was making great progress when in reality it was barely formed. The Symphony is a case in point having been promised to Hamilton Harty a full decade before anything actually appeared. The lack of physical evidence has led to a debate whether the work we do now enjoy had its roots to some degree in the early elusive piece or whether Moeran was simply telling people what he thought they wanted to hear.
This dissembling and shaping of a narrative to ‘fit’ an expectation is another recurring trait that runs throughout Moeran’s life. This seems to have ran the gamut of topics from the progress of scores to his essential “Irishness” [with implications that he had sympathy for the Irish Nationalist cause in general and contacts within the IRA] through to a curious underplaying of his experiences in World War 1. Part of the enduring narrative up until the publication of this book has been that Moeran suffered a severe head wound while acting as a dispatch rider. So severe that it required a metal plate to be inserted in head and this left him with an enduring legacy of appearing on occasion to be drunk and/or a physiological extreme reaction to even small amounts of alcohol. Detailed examination of the official regimental diaries and the medical reports/assessments of Moeran by Maxwell tell a different story. He was in fact a front line junior officer who clearly faced with bravery many of the terrifying aspects of trench warfare. He received a shrapnel neck injury during the abortive and poorly planned attack on Bullecourt on May 3rd 1917. This was a serious injury and one that it took him some time to recover from but the strong implication is that it was not life or personality altering in the way the narrative became. The problem for later biographers – and this goes right back to Peter Warlock/Philip Heseltine who wrote an early survey of “the man and his music” is that Moeran was the source of this mis-information. Bax in his epitaph after Moeran’s death says how Moeran spent the second half of his creative life in Ireland. He did indeed spend extended periods there but he was not the ‘settled Irishman’ he had led Bax to believe. Another recurring ‘story’ is that Moeran’s talent sprang from a family with no musical background. But Maxwell simply and clearly demonstrates that on both sides of his family Moeran had ancestors who were not just musical but very successfully so. These were people Moeran would have known about so the need to deny their existence seems at best petty.
That Moeran had a severe drink problem is not debated. Whether this was exacerbated either by the War injury/alcohol sensitivity or as a coping mechanism with delayed PTSD is. Maxwell believes that the balance of evidence is that he became an alcoholic during the Eynsford years simply because drink was ever-present and he enjoyed it in part as a reaction against his parent’s abstaining past. Moeran’s battle with drink seems to date simply from the extended and infamous sojourn at the cottage in Eynsford Kent where he lived for several years under the baleful influence of Warlock. Although Warlock did introduce Moeran to music and genres which would enrich his own musical vocabulary this would come at a price of alcoholism, a loss of compositional fluency and quite possibly life-shortening health issues. Throughout his life Moeran seems to have had accidents, illnesses, injuries or incapacities that plagued him with startling regularity. Of course how many of those were a result of excessive drink is hard to know.
Another recurring and rather tragic theme is of broken promises and broken friendships. Close personal and professional relationships with John Ireland, Hamilton Harty, Benjamin Britten, May Harrison amongst many others. All too often these seem to have foundered on a web of broken promises, half-truths and excuses – it is hard not to see Moeran as someone who knew what they wanted or thought but rarely felt able to confront those truths when the result would be uncomfortable. Sadly, these estrangements were often with people who clearly liked the man and believed in the music he wrote so the supposition has to be that a cumulative sense of being let down both personally and professionally meant that ultimately they ‘gave up’ on him. For example, Moeran accompanied May Harrison in his Sonata at a major recital in London’s Wigmore Hall so drunk that he could barely play. Harrison was unsurprisingly furious and even the prospect of a concerto with the associated concerts and publicity was not enough to encourage Harrison to maintain contact or - one imagines – faith in the composer.
Maxwell also touches on the issue of Moeran’s sexuality. He believes that he exhibited at least bisexual tendencies citing the hour-long cello sonata from his public school days and Warlock’s propensity for any kind of hedonistic experimentation as examples. However, I am not sure I find this of much relevance except as a biographical footnote. There is no evidence that Moeran’s sexuality impacted on his life in terms of emotional significance or social pressure and certainly his music is not shaped by human interaction in the way that other composers’ music is. Clearly it can be argued that the likes of Britten or Tchaikovsky wrote music imbued by their sexuality and their response to it. But then even the likes of Bax, Walton or Delius wrote music that was very much a consequence of passionate physical relationships. Even when Moeran was apparently besotted with cellist Peers Coetmore for whom he wrote the concerto and sonata the emotion is an idealised one that is not explicitly present in the music. Maxwell suggests that Moeran’s peripatetic life-style reflected a person unable to settle or commit in part due to a conflicted sense of self.
Place rather than person seems to have often been the motivating force behind much of his music. Moeran often needed a person to nudge him in the direction of a specific work – May Harrison with the Violin Concerto, Harriet Cohen with the Piano Rhapsody and Peers Coetmore with the Cello concerto let alone Harty for the Symphony or Bliss on behalf of the BBC for the Sinfonietta. But once “nudged” Moeran developed a curious compulsion to associate a work with a location which inspired the music and facilitated its composition. To the point where if he was not in Kenmare in Ireland for the Violin Concerto say, he convinced himself he could not compose successfully. This seems to be another story that Moeran repeated as much for his own sake as others – it also served as a good excuse more than once as to why progress on a work had stalled. Maxwell relates several situations where an “Irish” work for instance must have been created in part at least elsewhere. The fact that Moeran could afford these slightly eccentric and itinerant working methods was that he received a moderate allowance from his parents that essentially freed him from a routine of regular earning that other composers had to follow.
The last years of Moeran’s life are relatively rich in primary source material. Through his marriage to Coetmore, which was mainly conducted at distance, there is a body of surviving Moeran letters that reveal both his movements, his work and his moods. Typically, Coetmore’s letters to Moeran have not survived. This latter period is also the one covered by Lionel Hill’s friendship as recorded in his book. However, Maxwell councils that Hill is often to be considered a sympathetic “witness for the defence”. The last decade of Moeran’s life crystallises the struggles he had throughout the years. Because of Coetmore, it was relatively productive with the Cello Concerto and Sonata two of his finest works alongside the impressive Sinfonietta and good natured Serenade. But the source material also indicate a series of mental breakdowns and enduring struggles which often ended with the oblivion found at the bottom of a bottle. The last letter Coetmore received from Moeran was in mid-March 1950. The tone of this was more positive and optimistic but within a week he had disappeared from his rented rooms and almost nothing more is known of his movements until he fell from the pier at Kenmare in December that year. His abortive attempts to write/complete a 2ndSymphony hangs over the last years too. In correspondence he often referred to it being in various degrees of conception and/or completion. There are a few sketches that survived – probably because he died before he could customarily destroy them. Given Moeran’s fragile mental state and extended way of composing it seems very unlikely that the few sketches that did survive are in any way a definitive indication of what the final work might have become. The completion of the 2nd Symphony that has been recorded and performed is not addressed in this book as Maxwell does not believe it can be shown to have been written in any degree by the composer.
But it is these flaws and foibles that makes this book and ultimately a reader’s appreciation of Moeran the man and composer all the more powerful and touching. This is a very human story of a man who produced a small but treasured body of work which transcends the time and manner of its creation. If a recording company decided to release a “Moeran Edition” it would be modest in scale – no more than around fifteen discs for a complete survey. Add to that fact that his musical idiom was backward-looking rather than revolutionary. Furthermore, Moeran had no pupils, his direct influence on those who came later is minimal. By any academic measure his “significance” in the world of British 20th Century music is limited let alone the wider world. Yet the Art he left behind continues to move and fascinate those who are open to his vision and voice. This book makes a convincing case for the fact that although ‘minor’ in quantity and impact, Moeran produced a deeply individual and personal body of work that has an enduring appeal for audiences and performers alike.
Dr. Maxwell has added a major contribution both to our understanding of Moeran as well as the musical society in which he moved. His writing style is objective and clear. With the precision of a surgeon and the authority of a lawyer he presents facts with supporting evidence, offers a considered interpretation of those facts but ultimately leaves it to the reader to interpret as they see fit. I liked very much the way he does not insert his opinion into the narrative or mould Moeran to fit his own agenda. By definition some of his main conclusions are controversial as Moeran appears as less of a victim of circumstance and more the creator of his own downfall. But it is precisely because of that that somehow the quality of the Art he produced is elevated. Another point Maxwell makes is that to be deemed ‘minor’ is not to immediately presume derivitativeness. Moeran is a composer who often suffers with the curse of “sounds like...” In part this is something he brought on himself as the ‘cribbing’ of Sibelius or Dvorak or Ireland shows. But Maxwell counters this argument strongly and with supporting evidence to show that even when the influence of others was at its most explicit, Moeran had a unique musical style and vision. Nearly his entire creative life was dominated by melodies that could be considered as having a folk/Irish influence. Yet this is shown to be not a simple reliance on folk-melodies – Moeran used almost none in his original compositions – instead being a preference for the musical implications of pentatonic scales and the folk-like melodies that derive from that.
In addition to the main text, Maxwell includes two appendixes; one addresses what Maxwell terms “The Moeran Myth” which is the amalgamation of narratives – mainly stemming from Moeran himself regarding his heritage, upbringing, war record and ‘Irishness’. Ultimately, on a purely personal level, I have found all the new information to be fascinating without it detracting from my respect for the music or indeed the man who wrote it. My appreciation of the sheer craft and refinement of the music has increased. Maxwell succinctly puts it at the very end of his book; “Moeran repeatedly overcame his personal demons...and that can only be admired”. This is a very significant addition to our understanding of Moeran in particular and the musical society in which he moved in general. Worth noting that membership of the British Music Society entitles purchasers to a 35% discount off the standard £45.00 price – which I feel is already reasonable for a book of this calibre. As compelling a biography as I have read in several years.