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By Ian Lace © Ian Lace 1997

The lighter side of Elgar - i.e. his smaller works, his salon pieces, miniature orchestral works and songs have often been disparaged and regarded as being of little consequence; however, the same skill and craftsmanship that went into The Dream Of Gerontius was also invested in Dream Children. They are just two different sides of the same creative artist and, as such, they are equally essential to our overall view of Elgar.

By the same token, the music of Eric Coates was disparaged by musical snobs because it was popular, bright and cheerful, and easy on the ear. What is not always appreciated, is that Eric Coates had a thorough musical training; he was a skilled viola player, a first rate conductor, an imaginative orchestrator and an incomparable writer of richly memorable tunes.

In his first week at the Royal Academy of Music, he told his composition tutor that his aim was to write good light music - nothing more. Yet, as Geoffrey Self, his biographer, says: " It is remarkable how the basic material of his light music differed so little from that of the heavy music of some of his contemporaries: Richard Strauss, Elgar and Bax. (Bax was a fellow student and friend at the R.A.M.) Whereas they used the material for tone poems, oratorios and symphonies, Coates preferred the less loaded suite and phantasy.

Like Elgar, Eric Coates represented a kind of nationalism of his times - the London of the 1920s and 1930s, of that rather desparate gaiety which represented a desire to escape the grim realities of life after the Great War and the Depression.

Eric Coates was born in Hucknall - a small mining town a few miles north of Nottingham on August 27th 1886. In that year Caroline Alice Roberts came to Elgar for music lessons.

Eric Coates was the youngest son of the local doctor; his mother was a fine pianist.

The awakening of his musical talent came with the arrival at the Coates house of Pen Peyton with a violin. (Peyton's father, Sir Richard Peyton, would, a few years later, endow a chair of music at Birmingham University on condition that Elgar be its first holder.)

Following Pen's visit, the six year old Eric demanded a violin for himself. For a time, he largely taught himself then he was despatched to Nottingham for lessons with George Ellenberger who had been a pupil of Joachim, and to Ralph Horner for a basic grounding in theory and harmony.

When a boy, Eric loved to roam the country lanes of Nottinghamshire by foot or cycle and to visit local places of interest, like Southwell Minster, often in the company of his father who was a keen amateur photographer. Elgar, of course, was also a keen countryman.

When he was 16, a chamber music ensemble, of which he was a member, was short of a violist for the Brahms B minor Clarinet Quintet and he was asked to try his hand at that instrument. At once, new doors were opened to him. He joined the orchestra of the Nottingham Sacred Harmonic Society. Their concerts were conducted by the rising young Henry Wood. Eric sat at the front desks with Paul Beard's father. He made full use of his time questioning the players, noting the capacities of their instruments, their most effective registers, and which passages came off well or presented difficulty.

He composed a Ballad for Strings, a rather serious work for him, and it had a limited local success. His position was not dissimilar to that of Elgar a quarter of a century earlier. Everyone prophesied a great future. But many also cautioned his father that a musician's life was precarious and so a career in a bank was considered for him - much to Eric's chagrin. He loathed figures.

Fortunately, a musical friend suggested that he should go to the Royal Academy of Music where he arrived in the Autumn of 1906. At that time the Academy was presided over by Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Coates showed him some settings of his beloved Burns. Mackenzie put Coates with Lionel Tertis to study viola and Frederick Corder for composition. Tertis would later transcribe Elgar's Cello Concerto for the viola.

Sir Alexander said: "Mark my words young man, ye'll start as a viola player but ye'll end up as a composer!"

The Royal Academy of Music in those days was in Tenterden Street, off Hanover Square. At that time Coates' fellow students included Arnold Bax, York Bowen, Montague Philips and Myra Hess.

Eric Coates' delightful autobiography, Suite in Four Movements describes his student life at the R.A.M. He and his fellow students got up to all kinds of colourful antics - like firing a revolver in the gents toilet! He would ride to the R.A.M. in all weathers, on the top of a rickety old horse-bus, over a cobblestoned Kilburn High Road from his lodgings in West Hampstead. Eric's financial circumstances were no better than those of any other student and although he was in due course awarded a scholarship by the R.A.M. he had to supplement his income by playing in theatre orchestras - from vaudeville to Gilbert & Sullivan at the Savoy. He also played in chamber ensembles and concert orchestras. Suite in Four Movements gives a graphic account of what it must have been like to play in orchestras in the early years of the century - the long hours and difficult conditions.

His constitution was always fragile. Even in his student days health weaknesses were becoming apparent: chest trouble and neuritis which made holding and playing his instrument always difficult and sometimes a torture. He tells us that he often had to soak his hand in cold water before going onto the concert platform particularly if he faced a difficult piece. Nonetheless he became one of the most distinguished violists of his day and he was, like Arnold Bax, renowned for his sight reading prowess.

Whilst in Corder's class, Coates composed his Four English Songs, settings of Shakespeare including Under the Greenwood Tree and Who Is Sylvia? The work was premiered at a Promenade Concert in 1909 sung by Mrs Olga Wood and conducted by her husband Henry. It was an instant success and the songs were sung by Gervaise Elwes and Dame Nellie Melba etc.

More significantly, Coates screwed up his courage and approached Fred E. Weatherley, well known as both a defence lawyer and a first class lyricist, to ask if he might set one of Weatherley's poems to music. The result was Stonecracker John (composed in 1909 the year in which Elgar composed a number of his own songs including The Torch and Go Song of Mine). Stonecracker John became an early best seller selling many thousands of copies. Many other songs came from a fruitful collaboration between Coates and Weatherley. Like Elgar with Salut D'Amour, Coates at first received the standard £5 for Stonecracker John but then he pocketed a threepenny royalty on every 100 copies sold thereafter.

Coates's songs are on a slightly lower level of inspiration than his orchestral music and we rarely hear them today although he composed about 130 - mostly at the beginning of his career before the advent of radio and the gramophone. Only a few are remembered now such as Green Hills of Somerset, I Heard You Singing and Bird Songs At Eventide. (It is interesting to hear the Elgarian nostalgia in such Coates' songs as Always As I close My Eyes written in 1928.)

For a while Coates played in the Beecham Philharmonic made up of crack players of the day.

Quoting from His autobiography Eric tells us that

" Elgar's First Symphony was played nightly on tour, and its performance gradually diminished in length as Beecham became more and more impatient with the daily repetition of the work. At first he instituted carefully though-out 'cuts' but, as time went on, these became more and more drastic until, one night, just before the performance, he announced that there were going to be 'cuts' of the most ruthless nature, from here-to-there in each movement, and he ended up defiantly with the words: "I don't know how it sounds and I don't care!" Now, as it takes a great deal of music to play fifteen minutes you can imagine what Elgar's First Symphony in A flat, taking normally about fifty minutes to perform, sounded like cut down to thirty-five minutes. I can remember what it sounded like the first time we played the work in full on account of us nearing the 'Elgar' Country - we had become so used to the cuts that it was like playing the symphony at first sight and the result was little short of catastrophic - it sounded awful."

In 1910 Coates was invited to join Henry Wood's Queen's Hall Orchestra and, by 1913, he was principal violist. During his time with the orchestra, his fellow players included John Barbirolli, Basil Cameron, Eugene Goosens and Aubrey Brain.

Shortly after completing his studies at the Royal Academy, he returned there to attend one of the fortnightly concerts in March 1911. A beautiful young girl with long blonde tresses attracted his attention. He fell for her immediately. She was Phyllis Black (known affectionately as Phyl). She was then only sixteen. Her parents were for a long time opposed to their union but eventually Eric's charm won them over and they were married in 1913 and lived happily ever after.

Like Elgar's Alice, Phyl had a special influence on Eric's work and not surprisingly his first major orchestral piece, the Miniature Suite was premiered at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert in 1911, just seven months after they first met. In that same year, 1911, Elgar's Second Symphony received a rather cool reception in the same hall.

The third movement of Coates's Miniature Suite - a waltz - proved to be so popular that it had to be immediately repeated. But the second movement the Intermezzo is also of interest. The Elgarian influence again is clear. It is a love song. The letters P.M.B. clearly indicate this - it was Eric speaking directly to his beloved.

During his years in the Queen's Hall orchestra, Eric accompanied such artists as Rachmaninov, Moisewitch, Harriet Cohen and Percy Grainger, Caruso, Tetrazzini, Clara Butt and Peter Dawson and he played under the batons of such guest conductors as Mengelberg, Nikisch, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Delius, Holst and of course Elgar.

Of Elgar, Eric Coates remembered:

"I think the most uncertain of all the composers I played under was Sir Edward Elgar (whom I was to meet in later years and for whom I have always felt an affection), for his highly-strung nature, added to a habit he sometimes had of starting to conduct a work before the orchestra was ready, was unnerving. How well I remember the night at Queen's Hall when he was conducting a performance of his overture, In The South; he raised the stick without warning and executed a terrific down-beat, which was responded to by the first desk of the violas only (that being myself and my colleague), the remainder of the orchestra joining in on the second bar! Elgar's restlessness seemed reflected in his part-writing and I always found his music, lovely as a great deal of it is, extremely tiring to play. You never seemed to be in the same position for more than a few seconds, and were kept dodging up and down all over the strings sans cesse. He was a great writer, even if you did not like everything he wrote, and he at least knew his own mind well enough never to have to resort to the expedient of a 'second edition'.

In July 1919, came the blow; Eric was dismissed from the Queen's Hall Orchestra. He had offended by sometimes sending deputies to rehearsals (but never to performances). Wood had insisted that he would rather have second rate musicians who did not send deputies. Austin Coates, the composer's son, has added that Wood felt a jealousy for Coates which, however, he managed to contain on account of the great popularity of Eric's works.

Eric Coates' reaction to his dismissal was sharp he put away his viola and never played it again.

Luckily, with the advent of the Performing Rights Society in 1914 Eric had begun to receive fees for performances of his works. Furthermore, the inauguration of the New Queen's Hall Light Orchestra under Alick MacLean, in 1916, meant that there was a new and enthusiastic vehicle for Coates' music. And, by 1919, he had composed his From The Countryside Suite and his very popular Valsette - Wood Nymphs.

After his dismissal from the Henry Wood orchestra, Eric related that "I slipped into my dress clothes, strolled along to Queen's Hall, mounted the rostrum and conducted the first performance of my Summer Days Suite." Elgar had a special affection for this piece - it was his favourite Coates work. Elgar had a standing order for all new Coates recordings as they appeared and he said he had worn out his copy of Summer Days. (Like Elgar, Eric Coates recorded many of his own works.)

On 16th April 1922, Austin Coates was born. Austin remembers having constantly to keep quiet and out of the way as a child so as not to disturb his father. A parallel with Carice Elgar is discernible here. Austin was sent to a boarding school out of the way in Hampshire. For his sake, Eric and Phyl had moved out of central London to Hampstead Garden Suburb soon after he was born staying there for six years until they considered it was safe for him to cross a West End street on his own. (The streets were much quieter then.) It should be said that when Austin was seriously ill at boarding school, Phyl dedicated nearly two years to nursing Austin back to health, at their Sussex home, thereby jeopardizing her stage career. Eric would motor down from London early in the morning to be with them. To work comfortably, Eric Coates really needed to be in central London preferably on the top floor of a block of flats.

In 1923 came The Merrymakers Overture completed at St John's Wood in the January of that year. This is one of Eric Coates' masterpieces and it represents a summation of his early work.

Many of Eric Coates' most famous works were premiered at provincial festivals particularly at Eastbourne amongst them: The Selfish Giant, The Three Bears, Cinderella, and Dancing Nights. Today The Selfish Giant does not seem terribly jazzy. Walton, Lambert, Weill and even Stravinsky went much further but it was enough to frightened his publishers who were loathe to accept it. And orchestral players used to look down on jazz and Eric Coates had some difficulty in making them take the syncopations seriously. When The Selfish Giant proved to be a success, Chappells did not make the same mistake with Eric's second phantasy The Three Bears. They snapped it up.

The Three Bears was dedicated to Austin on his fourth birthday. Elgar was in attendance at a performance of the work in Eastbourne. Of the occasion, Coates remembered:

" He sacred me out of my life by appearing in the artists' room just as I was about to go onto the platform to conduct my Three Bears and he insisted on sitting behind the drums. He was quite oblivious of the fact that his entry into the orchestra had created a minor sensation among the audience and that during the performance he nearly dried me up by tapping his feet and wiggling his head from side to side, to such an effect that it was only with the greatest difficulty I managed to keep my mind on directing the orchestra through the cross-rhythms of the foxtrot section of my Phantasy."

The conductor who made The Three Bears his own was Basil Cameron. He maintained that he conducted it better than Coates himself. When Cameron appeared at rehearsals, dadadada-dada phrases from it were wont to echo across the orchestra in greeting.

Several years ago I produced a radio programme for BBC Radio Sussex about Eric Coates connections with the county of Sussex. For the programme,I interviewed Stanford Robinson at his Brighton flat in the early 1980s. He was very courageous in participating in the radio programme since he had a throat cancer and he found speaking very tiring. He reminded me that Coates conducted too. Stanford Robinson said: " Eric was very good at conducting his own works. He was always neat and immaculate and having been an orchestral player himself, he didn't bully the orchestra; however, he was always in control."

Stanford Robinson must have given more performances and recorded more of Eric Coates' works than any other conductor. One of the works that he premiered, in 1942, was The Four Centuries Suite. The last movement Rhythm 40s reflects the big band jazz sounds of that era. Stanford admitted that he and Eric shared some anxiety about the syncopation in that movement.

"The trouble was that at that time orchestral musicians tended to look down on jazz. They really didn't take to it and there was a jazz style - particularly amongst jazz players - that orchestral musicians never seemed to be able to get the knack of. Nevertheless, Eric used to get the effect he wanted by explaining that the movement was intended to be a joke and the effect of a good story is lost if you laugh while telling it; so the musicians entered into the spirit of the composition and performed it in such a way that would have pleased Paul Whiteman himself."

Stanford Robinson was closely associated with another of Eric Coates' works - The Enchanted Garden. In fact if it hadn't been for Stanford it might never have been written.

"It began with Andre Charlot asking Eric to compose a ballet for the opening of the new Cambridge Theatre. The result was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which, unhappily, was not a successful production. The music was originally scored for twelve solo players including two pianists. I broadcast the music two or three times with my theatre orchestra but its appeal was limited. I suggested to Eric that he should rescore it for concert performances but he was busy on other things and, to my disgust, he put it away in his desk. But I kept on at him about it and at last he took it out again when he was commissioned to write a new work by the Swedish Broadcasting Company. However, by now Walt Disney had brought out his own Snow White. Eric's wife, Phyllis, came to the rescue and wrote him a new story wound around the lovely garden of their house near Chichester. It was a story about a prince and a princess and the birds which sang in the garden. And so Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became The Enchanted Garden."

One of Eric Coates' most popular successes came with his London Suite particularly Knightsbridge because of its associations with In Town Tonight. But it very nearly did not happen.

Quoting from Geoffrey Self's book, In Town Tonight:

"Coates was in the Columbia studios recording the Two Symphonic Rhapsodies. While the label on these early Columbia records credits Eric Coates and the Symphony Orchestra, this anonymity for the players actually masks the newly formed Beecham instrument, the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The brilliance of this new body was immediately apparent to Coates, who realised, as a wily ex-orchestral player, that with such an expert ensemble, not all the rehearsal time would be necessary to give a good account of the Rhapsodies. With them safely in the can, 50 minutes remained of his three hour session. He had come prepared with the band-parts of the London Suite, all carefully edited and checked to eliminate time-consuming hold-ups, and had abridged the first two movements, Covent Garden and Westminster, so that they would together take up one side (of a 78 record). Everything went smoothly, and on the second run-through of the music they were safely recorded. Coates had about 25 minutes left, and the orchestra read through the Knightsbridge march. Now both luck and time began to run out. As a first take was tried, someone made a mistake (techniques of editing out such errors were not then so readily available as they are today, using tape.) A second came to grief when the wax master cracked. The session time was now up - but here Coates' many years rapport with orchestras came to his aid. He had, after all, for many years been a respected playing colleague. They gave him the time to try one more take.
It was successful. "

Austin Coates also told me the story of how it came to be featured on In Town Tonight.

"Eric Maschwitz was getting together a new programme called In Town Tonight - a Saturday evening, half hour programme introducing well known or unknown - but interesting - people who were "in town tonight." They had everything ready for the introduction: the sound of traffic and flower sellers in Piccadilly Circus "Buy My Sweet Violets", that sort of thing. Then, at the last moment, Eric Maschwitz said 'We've got to have some music for this; send someone down to Chappells (in Bond Street down from Broadcasting House) and get them to send every record with a London title. The records came up - amongst them The Knightsbridge March part of the London Suite which my father had just recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It was chosen by Maschwitz about twenty minutes before the programme went on the air. As it happened, it was part of the show's success from the start. Thirty thousand letters were received in six weeks asking about the music which was a huge postbag in those days.

But the best part of it all was that my father was in his dark room in his Baker Street flat the night when In Town Tonight was first broadcast (he used to transform his writing room into a dark room when he was developing) and my mother called to him and said: "They're playing something of yours on the radio; I can't think what it is.". He emerged from the dark room, listened a moment and said "No, neither can I" and went back again. Half an hour later my mother called him again. "Dear, they're playing this thing again; it must be a signature tune or something." He emerged again and said: "Yes, well I don't suppose it will do it any harm!"

Quoting again from Geoffrey Self's book -

"There are certain moments in music the mere anticipation of which cause a tingle in the spine. The throbbing bass at the start of the Knightsbridge March is such a moment; the march is as fine in its way as the first Pomp and Circumstance of Elgar and as that work tells us something of the national mood of its time (the mood, at any rate, of the society in which Elgar moved), so Knightsbridge mirrored Coates' world."

After Knightsbridge and In Town Tonight, the record companies flocked to him. Just as Fred Gaisberg at HMV skilfully promoted Elgar, so Columbia did a similar service for Eric Coates. It is interesting to compare Eric Coates's view of London with Elgar's earlier Cockaigne evocation of an Edwardian Capital that was the heart of a flourishing British Empire.

His music was heard on the radio ever more frequently over the next two decades or more. He was probably the first composer to be made famous by the new medium. His Calling All Workers introduced the thousands of Music While You Work programmes broadcast during the dark days of the Second World War. His By the Sleepy Lagoon written in 1930, suddenly became very popular in 1940 first in America and then here. It introduces Desert Island Discs to this day.

The Three Bears was played at the Proms in 1934 and received a great ovation. "When I heard that applause I knew that I would never be asked to conduct at the Proms again", said Coates. He was asked again but not for another 22 years. The relationship between Henry Wood and Coates was somewhat uncomfortable. Coates clearly felt the jealousy was still there. And again the Highbrow was stalking abroad. Coates music was light so it was naturally insignificant - the sheer fun of Coates music was unseemly.

Coates was also always fighting against a trend to consign light music to small orchestras. He insisted that his works had been crafted for a full symphonic complement.

The Saxo Rhapsody - unusual in that it has no programme - was composed for Sigurd Rasher the Danish virtuoso. It shows influences of Elgar (the nostalgia) and Richard Strauss.

Eric Coates, commenting about the composition of light music said:

"When you listen to a Suite, or a Phantasy, or an Overture by a genuine composer of the Light Orchestral School, it all sounds so easy, so spontaneous, but in all probability it has taken hours and hours of concentrated thought on the part of the writer to give you that impression. The sketching-out of a work is the least tedious part of the business, though even that may occupy several weeks. A recent Suite of mine in four movements was sketched out in about ten days and the orchestration finished in four months. A labourious and thankless task, you may think? Laborious, yes, but not thankless. It is one of the most satisfying thingsI know, after having sat at my desk day in day out, writing, contriving, experimenting, altering, with the work on hand growing slowly under my pen, to be in front of the orchestra, stick in hand, to hear for the first time what I had been listening to in my head for so long."

During the war, when the flying bombs were devastating the S.E. of England, Eric wrote one of his most charming suites. He had been going through a fallow period and was casting round for inspiration. A country vicar came up with just the right idea - a suite around the theme of The Three Elizabeth's: first Elizabeth I, then Queen Elizabeth, now the Queen mother, and finally the then Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II. The Elizabeth I movement, subtitled Halcyon Days, achieved great popularity because it was used to open and close the immensely popular BBC TV series The Forsyte Saga. But the loveliest movement must surely be the central movement - Elizabeth of Glamis.

Another great hit was Eric's music for the film The Dam Busters. He did not want to write for films because of the experience of Sir Arthur Bliss who had been mortified to find that much of the music he had composed for Things to Come had been cut from the film. However, Chappells persuaded him and in the end Coates agreed to let the producers have a concert march for use in the film. This was in 1954. By 1956 a quarter of a million records of The Dambusters March had been sold. It was Eric Coates' last big success. Elgar was interested in the cinema and was actually toying with the idea of writing for films at the end of his life.

Eric Coates continued to compose sporadically through the 1950s - Sweet Seventeen and Impressions of A Princess for example.

His last conducting engagement was at the Royal Concert in November 1957. (Elgar had often enjoyed royal patronage.) He conducted High Flight (another piece of film music) and Elizabeth of Glamis. A few days later he and Phyl drove down to Sussex. On the way he asked her to take over the wheel - a most unusual occurrence. On 17th December he suffered a massive stroke and was admitted into the Royal West Sussex Hospital, Chichester. He died there on 21st December 1957. Within hours the BBC informed the world of the death of the uncrowned King of Light Music. Eric Coates was pre-eminent amongst British light music composers as Elgar was pre-eminent amongst more serious British composers.


Suite in Four Movements (Centenary edition - 1986) by Eric Coates - Thames Publishing
In Town Tonight - Eric Coates (A centenary study - 1986) by Geoffrey Self - Thames Publishing

© Ian Lace 1997
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