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Coates merrymakers 8555178
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Eric COATES (1886-1957)
The Merrymakers (A miniature overture) (1923) [4:36]
London Suite (London every day) (1932) [15:00]
Cinderella (1929) [15:46]
The Selfish Giant (1925) [11:03]
London Again Suite (1936) [17:11]
Calling All Workers (1940) [3:22]
The Dambusters March (1954) [3:56]
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Leaper
rec. 1992, Concert Hall, Slovak Radio, Bratislava, Slovakia
NAXOS 8.555178 [71:26]

I really shouldn’t need to point out that there’s no shame in enjoying a bit of light music. Indeed, we live in an age when even the UK’s top commercial “classical” radio station broadcasts so much of it, to the apparent approval of its listeners, that, as a result, many of them must have now come to think that virtually anything played by a full orchestra counts as “classical”.

“Light” music used, however, to be categorised quite distinctly and separately. Its heyday was, perhaps, between about 1920 and the mid-1950s - in other words when the ubiquitous form of popular entertainment was the radio. Indeed, from 1945 until 1967 one of the BBC’s three national radio stations was actually named the Light Programme. With the BBC enjoying a monopoly of broadcasting, radio audiences were often huge by today’s standards. Consequently, if a catchy tune were fortunate enough to make it onto the airwaves it stood a good chance of becoming very popular indeed.

The career of Eric Coates offers three good examples. When Knightsbridge from his London suite was first used by the BBC as the theme music for the radio programme In town tonight in 1933, 20,000 listeners wrote in within a fortnight to ask what it was. Seven years later, the first broadcast of Music while you work was introduced by the same composer’s Calling all workers, a piece that thereafter rallied thousands of factory hands to the machines producing invaluable war materiel, its cheerful, sprightly tempo intended both to boost morale and to speed up production so as to get the maximum number of bombs, bullets and rifles out of every shift. Just a couple of years later in 1942, the first broadcast of Desert island discs introduced listeners to its gently beguiling theme tune By the sleepy lagoon, a complete musical contrast to Calling all workers yet equally carefully targeted at its wartime audience – in this case aiming to temporarily redirect their minds from the daily reality of desolate bombsites to a fantasy of peaceful tropical beaches (even if we now know that the piece was actually inspired by a view of Bognor Regis).

Those three Coates pieces have survived to greater or lesser extents in the public consciousness. So do one or two others, notably the march composed for the 1955 hit film The dam busters (unlike Coates’s piece, the film splits the words dam and busters). But would that musical longevity have occurred if they hadn’t had that early widespread and, crucially, endlessly repeated media exposure? They may have been effectively marketed, but were they actually any good?

Luckily for us, Knightsbridge and Calling all workers are included on the CD under review, while By the sleepy lagoon can still be heard regularly on BBC radio where this year Desert island discs will be celebrating eight decades on air. As a result, we can attempt to work out exactly what it was that appealed to BBC producers who were always on the lookout for music to hook would-be listeners into associated programmes but who, in busy working environments and without the benefit of 21st century hindsight, needed to make quick decisions based on listening to potential pieces only once or twice. Having worked in radio for many years myself, I’d suggest off the top of my head that a few of the factors that drew Knightsbridge, Calling all workers and By the sleepy lagoon to radio producers’ attention were their strongly “visual” titles (suggesting a bustling street full of distinctly up-market people, busy factory floors and a golden, wave-kissed tropical beach) that were married to melodies appropriate to those imagined locations; skilful orchestral arrangements that suited the mood of each piece (plush strings indicating the sophistication of London’s West End, or plenty of brass providing a strident rallying call to the factory workers); and at least one memorable “big tune” in each piece.

In similar fashion, the producers of The dam busters knew exactly what they were doing when, on the basis of 30 years’ experience of Coates’s music, they commissioned him to write a march that could be used not just over the film’s credits but also as the basis for a complete score, even if, unknown to them, the finished product he provided was one that he’d already composed. Radio theme music was, of course, an entirely different kettle of fish from that composed for films. Unlike BBC listeners who could switch off a programme at the turn of a switch, cinemagoers, having paid their 1s. 8½d (just 8p – the average price of a UK cinema ticket in 1954), formed a captive audience and could be relied upon to sit through a film regardless of whether or not they were immediately gripped by the introductory music. Nevertheless, Coates’s march, elaborated with other material into a full-length score by Leighton Lucas, played a pivotal part in the film’s success, not only setting its initial mood but also providing thematic material to engender, as required, tension (how will the unworldly boffin design a dam-busting bomb?), patriotism (the training and bravery of the air crews) and eventual triumph (the dramatic destruction of the Möhne and Edersee dams). Just like the Lancaster bombers seen on screen, Coates’s music undeniably hits its targets and, thanks not least to the march’s melodic earworm (da, DA, da, da-da-da-da-da) and to the film’s frequent TV re-runs, remains familiar to this day.

What, however, of the other music that’s showcased on this disc? Most effective, I think, are the sprightlier pieces and the marches – the latter being particularly associated with Coates’s name, though he was adamant that they were not actually composed for marching. Even, I imagine, the most highly drilled parade-ground troops would be tripping over their own feet in attempting to keep up with the likes of Calling all workers or The dambusters march.

The less up-tempo pieces are certainly atmospheric and often attractive. Generally, however, they are delivered in a manner that doesn’t maximise their memorability. When Edward Elgar came up with a self-evident hit in his Pomp and circumstance march no. 1, he knew exactly how to deploy it: as he famously remarked to his friend Dora Penny, “I’ve got a tune that will knock ‘em – knock ‘em flat”. Coates, on the other hand, sometimes seems all too conscious that he is writing “light” music. He seems to lack that Elgarian killer punch and to eschew over-the-top emotion in favour of something more reticent or, as Tim McDonald accurately describes it in his excellent Naxos booklet essay, “prim and proper”. [Mr McDonald’s contribution, incidentally, is well worth a mention in its own right. At no less than 14 full pages long, it is a very substantial and worthwhile component of this release.]

When it comes to performances of light music, no-one would suggest that we’re looking for the intellectual or emotional depths we expect to find in the works of more “serious” composers. If we anticipate that the finest Bach, Beethoven or Bruckner will challenge us to think more deeply about the human condition, we surely want little more from Eric Coates than that he should divert us by pleasurably taking our minds off both our immediate tasks (Calling all workers) and the humdrum preoccupations of daily life (By the sleepy lagoon). As such, detailed criticism of performances is unnecessary: the question is simply whether or not we enjoy listening. Adrian Leaper certainly leads accomplished and effectively delivered performances of all the pieces. They adopt, it’s true, consistently slower tempi than those found in my comparative recordings (see below), but they are no less enjoyable. I don’t imagine that the Slovak musicians had had any acquaintance with Coates’s scores before they made these recordings, but they are clearly accomplished enough to adapt to the composer’s idiom with obvious success. Even though the original Marco Polo recordings are now 30 years old, they come up very well on this Naxos reissue so that sound quality is of no real concern at all.

What about those competitors? I’m afraid that I haven’t had the opportunity to hear any of John Wilson’s recordings, though my late colleague Ian Lace was sufficiently complimentary to nominate at least one of them as a MusicWeb Recording of the Month. I do, however, have Sir Charles Groves’s two-disc survey of Coates’s oeuvre, recorded in the 1960s and 1970s and digitally remastered for its 1988 reissue (EMI CD-CFPD 4456), which features good but notably reverberant sound. Some listeners may, indeed, consider that sound on the disc under review suits the composer’s modest intentions rather better. Nevertheless, the Groves set includes everything on Leaper’s disc apart from The selfish giant and also adds quite a bit more (the Saxo-Rhapsody, Wood nymphs, At the dance, The three Elizabeths suite, Music everywhere, From meadow to Mayfair suite, Man from the sea and The three bears phantasy). It might be worth keeping an eye open for a used copy. The same is true for a couple of discs, issued long ago in Naxos’s British light music series, that collected some of Eric Coates’s own recordings that were made between 1926 and 1940 and generally exhibit lighter textures and sprightlier tempi than either Groves or Leaper. If, however, you don’t already possess either John Wilson’s discs or any of the older recordings – or if you’re looking for a single “greatest hits” collection – then Adrian Leaper may well be your man.

Rob Maynard

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