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Eric Coates: "Suite in Four Movements" published by Thames Publishing

FOREWORD to the Second  Centenary Edition 1986

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.

Sargent had not heard Four Centuries before the rehearsal that morning. Just before lunch he asked my father if he would mind if the items were reversed. My father came home so worried that he was in a mood not to conduct. He could not understand why Sargent should interfere with the programme.

Just before the second half that evening, a Tannoy announcement said the works were to be reversed. Sargent conducted the Tchaikovsky, after which he brought my father in with a flourish.

All went well to start with, but the orchestra was tired, and Four Centuries is a very demanding work. In the valse, the leader, faced with that appallingly difficult violin solo, fluffed badly. I thought to myself, 'How on earth are they going to get through the fourth movement?' (Rhythm: 20th Century).

When that movement began, my mother and I were getting pretty nervous. Then, when the tenor saxophone entered, the audience laughed. Jascha Krein, who had been specially engaged with two altos from his saxophone team, was so shocked he nearly dried up. There was a moment when the work very nearly collapsed. Outwardly, my father remained entirely cool, and avoided looking at Jascha Krein, who somehow mastered himself and went on.

Again, at the point of the trumpet phrase played 'in the hat', there was a laugh. Although it was a very warm evening, my mother and I were, by this time, stone cold and perspiring with anxiety. The trouble with laughs from the audience is that you can never tell whether it is a laugh of ridicule or amusement.

By the end of the work I had reached a stage where I didn't mind what happened. I had somehow cut myself off.

Well, there was no clapping. Instead, they were banging on the boards, waving their arms in the air and yelling at the tops of their voices. Even in the more sedate tiers they were on their feet cheering, and in the gods they were yelling and waving. The noise was deafening. I have never before or since seen such an extraordinary scene in a concert hall, and it went on unabated while my father took two calls, at the end of which the principal violin said something to him. Amid the uproar it was impossible to hear a thing, but by lip-reading I could see the principal was saying, 'Eric, you've got to ...!'

So, in defiance of BBC rules - they were on the air - my father took up his baton (immediately dead silence) and conducted the fourth movement again. This time, Jascha Krein, realising the audience was with him, not against him, and the orchestra having recovered from their nerves (make no mistake, they had been worried too), they gave a magnificent performance, far better than the first. And the same incredible scene took place a second time. Deafening uproar. And again, it went on unabated while my father took two calls. For an awful moment I thought he might have to do it a third time. But he had a wonderful way with an audience. He made a very simple gesture, which without need for a word, said, 'Now, I'm going home. So must you.' They cheered him till the last instant they could see him. The moment he was lost to view the cheering stopped, like turning off a tap, and they were all rumbling home.

Then, a few days later, on his 70th birthday, there was the concert by one of the BBC orchestras and broadcast from the Albert Hall, Nottingham. The hall was packed, with people sitting and standing all round behind the orchestra; some of them who could not get foot-room were even clinging to the organ pipes. When I pointed out this last point to him, he said, 'Yes, when I go to Nottingham I do draw quite a crowd.'

On one occasion I came back from Hongkong and found him turning out electric lights all over the place. I asked him why on earth he was doing so. He said, 'It's this terrible income tax. If I write another Sleepy Lagoon I shall be ruined.' I thought of this when he wrote The Dambusters.

Many people, particularly those connected with the Royal Air Force. have asked me why he included such cheerful, light- hearted music in a march with a solemn theme. The answer is he was thinking of the experience of Arthur Bliss when the latter wrote the music for the 1930s movie Things to Come, based on the H G Wells story. Bliss was given the script, and meticulously wrote the music for it. A special set of tubular bells had to be sent from Leningrad to get one of his effects. When it came to the final editing, large sections of the movie were cut. Something like 183 pages of Bliss' music were not used. Nor were the tubular bells. Bliss was understandably upset, told my father about it, and my father never forgot it.

When Associated British Pictures (ABP) asked him to write the music for The Dambusters he refused, though he had enjoyed reading the script. A great deal of persuasive argument had to be brought to bear, notably from Teddy Holmes of Chappell's, to make him change his mind. He finally relented to this extent. He said, 'I'll give you a five-minute concert march, and leave you a free hand to use it as you like in the film.' Which Leighton Lucas admirably did.

ABP arranged for my father and mother to see a run-through of the movie, but when they got to the studios the sound-track had not arrived, so they saw the film silent. They were so moved by it they felt certain it would be a success, and brushed aside ABP's apologies. I think one of the things that appealed to him most about The Dambusters was when he was told about the first performance of the film in Paris, when a British military band played on the pavement outside the cinema, and the march brought the traffic on one side of the Avenue des Champs-Elysées to a halt.

When I was last with him, In the autumn of 1956, he complained once or twice of crystals In front of his eyes, going up and down. At the Norwich Festival of, I think, 1957, he could not see his way clearly from the artists' room to the rostrum, and they had to put him on course through the desks. Then he was all right.

His last appearance was conducting a performance of another film march, High Flight - not a film of much worth - at the Royal Festival Hall in November 1957. Shortly afterwards, he and my mother drove to their country home near Bognor, and in a very rare moment, he asked my mother to drive. Then, on 17th December, in the middle of the night, he cried out to my mother 'Phyl!' (his last word). He had a massive stroke, and was paralysed. My mother managed to get a doctor at 3.30 a.m. and shortly afterwards an ambulance took him to the Royal West Sussex Hospital at Chichester. He never re-gained consciousness, though technically alive for three days. He died on 21st December 1957.

High Flight, his last work, had a very strange ending, almost premonitory, though of this he would have been quite unconscious. He played it over to me on the piano in the autumn of 1956, but only roughed out the ending. I did not hear the orchestral ending till after his death, and was then struck by those last peculiarly constricting chords, as if the heart was going to burst. Then comes the final note, which is not a chord but a staccato octave from top to bottom of the orchestra. It's so quick as to be impossible to analyse, but if you examine it on paper, you will see that only one composer in the world could have written it adjusted that way. As Stanford Robinson once said, you had only to see a chord of C major written for orchestra, and you could tell at a glance it was Eric Coates.'

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.

Eric used to tell the story of Maclean stopping the orchestral rehearsal and saying, 'Tympani, I want the accent - bum-titty-bum-titty-bum.' During the replay, Maclean again stopped the orchestra, and said, 'Tympani, I want the accent - titty-bum-titty-bum', to which the tympani player responded (to the delight of the orchestra), 'Excuse me, Mr. Maclean, but do you want the accent on the Titty or the Bum?'

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.

Austin said:

'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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