Music Webmaster Len Mullenger
by Ian Lace
© Ian Lace 1986
|Regular listeners to BBC Radio's long-running 'Desert Island Discs' will
know that its famous signature tune, By the Sleepy Lagoon, was written
by Eric Coates.
In the unlikely event that I were ever to be interviewed on that programme, and was asked which book I would take with me to my desert island, I would reply unhesitatingly - this one! I first read Suite in Four Movements when I was in my late teens and discovering the world of music. Since then I have read it many times, always with the same enthusiasm and enjoyment, which is something rather special, for I rarely re-read other composers' lives.
Suite in Four Movements is not only a delightful and often witty story about a gifted composer and a charming, happy, well-adjusted man, it is also an invaluable historical record of what life was like as a student of the Royal Academy of Music, and a player in concert and theatre orchestras and chamber music ensembles in the early years of this century. We learn, for instance, much about the infamous deputy system which blighted British orchestras at that time, and much about the styles of such conductors as Henry Wood, Beecham, Nikisch, Mengelberg, Elgar, Debussy and Richard Strauss.
The idea for a new edition of Suite in Four Movements evolved after I produced a half-hour programme for local radio based on Eric Coates' many associations with the county of Sussex. The programme included interviews with Stanford Robinson, Teddy Holmes of Coates' music publishers, Chappell's, and the composer's son Austin Coates, author of books on the East, who lives in Hongkong.
The concept of this new edition was that it should be expanded to include some words of appreciation from those who knew him, a list of works, some pictures not included in the original edition, and biographical details about the remaining years of Eric Coates' life not covered in Suite in Four Movements.
The original autobiography covered Eric's life up until 1953, when this book was published. He died just four years later, on December 21, 1957. During those latter years he composed one of his most popular works, The Dambusters March, and there were one or two notable concerts. Austin Coates sent me the following description of the highlights of that period:
'One occasion I shall always remember was his appearance at a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall on a Saturday night in August 1956. Malcolm Sargent was the conductor, and the second half was to consist of my father conducting his Four Centuries' Suite, followed by Sargent conducting a work by Tchaikovsky.
Within half an hour of the event, the BBC was announcing throughout the world, and in dozens of languages, the death of 'the uncrowned king of light music', and it was said that perhaps no composer had ever provided music to suit the public taste so unerringly for such a long time. A span of fifty years lay between his first song success in Edwardian times and his last orchestral works.
One's overall impression, reading this book, is that Eric Coates was an essentially happy person, full of joie de vivre. Austin Coates confirmed that this was so. He told me:
'Yes, that's absolutely true, although at home we noticed how calm and extremely well-ordered he was. For instance, he couldn't settle down to write music until he was properly dressed in the morning, complete with tie and Harris Tweed coat - and, perhaps, a Turkish cigarette. He was very formal at home and incredibly tidy. If I left a book lying around anywhere, there would be quite a lot of remonstrances to follow. But he was very easy to live with.
Eric Coates had a marvelous sense of humour, as Teddy Holmes of Chappell's, was quick to point out. He told me:
'In the early days, Chappell took over the symphony concerts at the Queen's Hall to promote their ballads and orchestral and instrumental publications. They inaugurated the famous Chappell Ballad Concerts, at which many great singers and instrumentalists appeared. They also created the New Queen's Hall Light Orchestra, which was originally conducted by Henry J Wood and subsequently by Alick Maclean, a fine but volatile conductor. Apart from providing a great contrast in programme content, one of the principal reasons for the creation of the orchestra was to perform the works of Eric Coates, Haydn Wood, Roger Quilter, Percy Fletcher, Montague F Phillips and other up-and-coming English composers.
Teddy Holmes went on to remember:
'Eric lived for many years in the Regent's Park area and it was his habit to walk down to Bond Street, and if we didn't see him in Chappell's by 11a.m. we used to wonder what had happened to him. He used to say that during those walks he had many of his musical ideas - even to the extent of scoring in his mind so that, when he returned home, he could sit down and write out a full score. 'When Eric was illustrating a new work on the piano, he had a marvellous facility of singing the various inner counter-melodies, and he could imitate a clarinet or oboe quite beautifully. He used to say that in his early days, he had to play so many dull viola parts that he made up his mind that every instrument - including the Cinderella instrument of the orchestra, the viola - should have an interesting part, and that is what makes his orchestrations so colourful.'
Teddy Holmes also remembered that Eric was a fine viola player and in his early days, as a professional musician, played in the orchestra at the Savoy Theatre for the first revival season of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas. Although a very modest man, he enjoyed telling the story about the members of the orchestra having a competition to see who would be the first player to play an entire score from memory, and how he won.
When I was preparing material for the local radio programme, I travelled to Buckinghamshire to meet Eric Coates' widow, Phyllis (shortly before she died) and his sister-in-law, Mrs Elfrida Joan Freeman. They told me that, although he and Phyllis liked to dance the night away at the London night spots, he was essentially a private person, preferring a quiet evening at home with a few good friends rather than a hectic round of parties..
They also confirmed that he enjoyed conducting his own music and had very decided views on the subject. He liked his music to be taken at brisk and lively tempi - he frowned on those conductors who made it sound slow and stodgy: there was nothing like that about him.
Eric Coates frequently conducted his own music. When I asked what he was like on the rostrum, Stanford Robinson, who must have conducted more performances and made more recordings of Eric's music than any other conductor, said, 'He was very good. He was always neat and immaculate and, of course, having been an orchestral player himself, he did not bully the orchestra; but he was always in control.'
Another conductor of Eric Coates' music, Sir Charles Groves, wrote of him: 'Eric Coates was a gentle and quietly-spoken man but his music crackled with vitality. He could write tunes and could clothe them in the most attractive instrumental colours; not for nothing had he been Henry Wood's principal viola in the Queen's Hall Orchestra.
'He did not, as far as I know, aspire to writing symphonies or oratorios like two of his famous predecessors, Arthur Sullivan and Edward German; he knew what he could do and he did it superbly well. 'Someone once said that the marches of Sousa would make a man with a wooden leg step out; a man would have to have a wooden heart not to respond to the music of Eric Coates.'
Probably one of the most graceful tributes was when Sir Adrian Boult celebrated his 50 years of conducting at the Royal Albert Hall and, after a great ovation, he played as an encore, The Dambusters.
What is not quite so well known today is that Coates composed a large number of songs. Speaking of these, Mrs Stanford Robinson, who sang many of them under her professional name, Lorely Dyer, said:
'I always enjoyed singing Eric's songs. They had a lovely vocal line and gave one every chance to colour one's voice. My favourites were, Fairy Tales of Ireland, Bird Songs at Eventide, I Heard you Singing and, most of all, Green Hills of Somerset.'
In his early years he was much influenced by Edward German. During the 1920s, Eric Coates developed a distinctive style which embraced his own use of the newly-introduced American syncopated idiom. Indeed, he was the first European composer to treat this new style seriously, and successfully integrate it into symphonic writing.
When he adopted syncopation, the music critics of the heavier press ignored him, but it never seemed to concern him. 'After writing the London Suite,' he once said, 'I moved from the music page to the news page, and it was one of the moves I have never regretted.'
From time to time he was asked for a new march by persons or organisations he felt he couldn't refuse - for example, when Athelstan Popkiss became Chief Constable of Nottingham and asked for a march for the City of Nottingham police. Coming from an old friend and his native county, it was an inescapable request. The result was Men of Trent. Strangely enough, when these requests were made, within a few hours, sometimes in less than an hour, tunes would come into his head.
Inspiration sometimes came to him in the most unusual places. A certain pillar box in Harley Street, for instance, is said to have inspired one of his marches.
For over 27 years Eric Coates' march Knightsbridge, from his London Suite, introduced BBC Radio's 'In Town Tonight'. And it was not the only long running programme that used Coates' music; His march Calling All Workers was the clarion call for the thousands of 'Music While You Work' programmes broadcast during the hard days of the war. Halcyon Days (Elizabeth Tudor), from the Three Elizabeths Suite, opened and closed BBC Television's immensely popular serialisation of Galsworthy's 'The Forsyte Saga'. These were just a few of the programmes that were enhanced by Coates' music, which seemed to give them a special cachet and perhaps a touch of magic, because they all seemed to be successful. Indeed, 'Desert Island Discs' is still with us.
There is one story, which Austin Coates told me, that will not be found in this book, and it brings this introduction full circle. It is the story of how By the Sleepy Lagoon came to be composed - and in a way it is a typical example of Eric Coates' rich imagination and interesting and impressive working methods.
'It was inspired in a very curious way and not by what you might expect. It was inspired by the view, on a warm, still summer evening looking across the "lagoon" from the east beach at Selsey towards Bognor Regis. It's a pebble beach leading steeply down and the sea at that time is the tremendously deep blue of the Pacific. It was that impression, looking across at Bognor, which looked pink - almost like an enchanted city with the blue of the Downs behind it - that gave him the idea for the Sleepy Lagoon. He didn't write it there; he scribbled it down, as he used to in pencil at extreme speed, and then simply took it back with him to London, where he wrote and orchestrated it.'
But the story of Eric Coates is Suite in Four Movements told by the best possible author - Eric Coates himself. Perhaps it will become your Desert Island choice?
© Ian Lace 1986
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