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Eric Coates in Sussex

- a transcript of part of a BBC local radio programme, "The Enchanted Garden",
devised, scripted and produced by Ian Lace

© Ian Lace 1997
Chichester and Selsey have strong connections with Eric Coates. Coates was born in Hucknall near Nottingham. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music - at the same time as Arnold Bax - studying viola with Lionel Tertis and composition with Frederick Corder. He played in chamber ensembles and in theatre orchestras under the batons of such famous names as Henry Wood, Nickisch, Mengelberg, Elgar, Debussy and Richard Strauss. Eventually when neuritis in his left hand made playing the viola too difficult he turned exclusively to composition.

Sussex had many associations for Eric Coates. He lived in Selsey and Siddlesham - retreating there at weekends and for holidays. And much of his music was premiered at the Eastbourne Festivals and in Brighton.

His son, Austin, himself a writer of many books on oriental subjects, lived in Hongkong when we began our friendship. He and I collaborated to publish an edited version of Eric Coates's marvellous autobiography Suite in Four Movements (Thames Publishing) in time for the centenary of the composer's birth in 1987. The book includes material about Coates's final years (covering compositions such as The Dam Busters March and a list of works and some new pictures.)

Austin Coates related how his father came to settle in Sussex:

"...Mainly because of me. My mother and father both felt it was desirable for a young boy to be able to get away from the smoky atmosphere of London as much as possible. They chose Selsey for its tremendously healthy sea air and for a complete contrast to London."

I asked Austin if any of his father's works had been influenced by Sussex:

Yes - By the Sleepy Lagoon. 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 an incredibly 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, at extreme speed, and then simply took it back with him to London where he wrote and orchestrated it."

Stanford Robinson must have given more performances and recorded more of Eric Coates' works than any other conductor. He reminded me that Coates conducted too. He 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."

(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,)

One of the works that Stanford Robinson 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."

Austin Coates talking about their home which had inspired The Enchanted Garden said:

" We were living at that time at Siddlesham about four miles south of Chichester on the Birdham road. We had an Elizabethan kitchen but it was a William and Mary house and it was enclosed by one and a half acres of garden that was totally enclosed; you simply couldn't see us although we were surrounded by open fields. The original house is listed in the Doomsday Book in point of fact. It was there that my father got the idea for The Enchanted Garden. It was the one and only place where he wrote in Sussex. It was the only time we had somewhere large enough for him to have all his writing equipment and a piano. The house at Selsey, when we first came to Sussex was too primitive - there was no electricity, no mains drainage and we didn't even have a radio until 1930. He much preferred to write in comfort in London where he had all he needed."

If you asked nine out of ten people what was the one work they remembered of Eric Coates they would probably reply The Knightsbridge March. Austin Coates related the story about how it came to be chosen to open and close 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!"

Many of Eric Coates' most delightful works were premiered at the Eastbourne Festivals - The Selfish Giant, Dancing Nights, Cinderella and The Three Bears which was dedicated to Austin on his fourth birthday. "My father loved going to the Eastbourne Festival. I think of all the places in Sussex, Eastbourne was his favourite with that marvellous orchestra and perfect conditions for concerts."

Eric Coates' wife and sister in law, Mrs Joan Freeman, in another interview for the radio programme, confirmed that although he and Phyllis liked to go out dancing, he was essentially a private person preferring an evening at home with a few special friends. They said he enjoyed conducting his own music and had very decided views on the subject. He liked his music taken at lively and brisk tempi; he frowned on those conductors who made it sound slow and stodgy - there was nothing like that about him!

One's overall impression was that here was an essentially happy man full of joie de vivre. Austin agreed "..'Although, at home, one noticed, first and foremost, what a calm person he was and how extremely ordered he was. He could not write music until he was properly dressed in the morning complete with tie and Harris Tweed jacket and, perhaps, a Turkish cigarette. He was very formal at home; incredibly tidy: if I left a book about anywhere there would be quite a lot of remonstrances to follow; but he was very easy to live with."

In December 1957, Eric Coates conducted for the last time at the Royal Festival Hall. The day after he and his wife drove down to their country home near Bognor Regis and in a very rare moment he asked her to drive. About six days later, in the middle of the night, he suffered a massive stroke and was rushed to the Royal West Sussex Hospital at Chichester. He died there on 21st December 1957.

© Ian Lace 1997


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