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Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


There is little need to say more about Eric Coates (1886-1957) as he has already been covered so well in comparatively recent years by Geoffrey Self In Town Tonight, and by the reissue of Coates' own autobiography, Suite in Four Movements (both published by Thames). His music has, for a variety of reasons, survived better than that of his peers. But to aim to cover British light music of this century and not include Coates would almost be to re-write 'Hamlet' without the Prince. So here goes; those really wanting to know about Coates in detail are cordially referred to those two books, among others.

I saw Eric Coates once, at Sheffield City Hall on 18 April 1953, when he conducted the second half, entirely devoted to his own music, of a Hallé Orchestra concert styled 'Masterpieces of English Light Music' (few major orchestral series would risk such a programme nowadays; the first half, conducted by George Weldon, comprised Sullivan's Di Ballo, Edward German's Henry VIII dances, Percy Grainger's Mock Morris and Molly on the Shore and Haydn Wood's Variations on a Once Popular Humorous Song). It may be worth recalling the works he conducted on that occasion as perhaps indicative of some of those he regarded most highly. After the Prelude and Hornpipe from Four Centuries - surely one of the finest bits of pastiche by a British light music composer - and the delicious Dance of the Orange Blossoms from Jester at the Wedding, Walter Lear was the soloist in the Saxo-Rhapsody, which is, for all its easy fluency, still one of the finest pieces written for saxophone, and the concert ended with By the Sleepy Lagoon and the ever-popular Three Elizabeths Suite, complete.

I have the happiest recollections of the concert, which is an indication - if one were needed - that Coates was a fine conductor of his own music, something borne out further by his many recordings.

Coates, unlike so many of the figures discussed in my writings, had little or no connection with the theatre, either as musical director or as composer. His ballets The Jester at the Wedding and The Enchanted Garden were never staged and are to be regarded, as perhaps they always were, as concert works. The earlier Seven Dwarfs had little success in the theatre. Coates is reckoned primarily as an orchestral composer, his career in this direction beginning in 1911 with the first performance of the Miniature Suite by the Queen's Hall Orchestra - an ensemble in which Coates played the viola - conducted by Sir Henry Wood, although there had been an earlier Ballad for strings, performed in Nottingham in 1904 and unpublished in Coates' lifetime but revived in the 1990s and now recorded on ASV.

He composed a handful of chamber works and piano solos, mostly now forgotten or lost, or both (although First Meeting has been recorded in its original guise for viola and piano; it was published for violin and piano) and three brief choral works; but Coates' most important non-orchestral music is the corpus of 160-odd songs, mostly of the ballad type, although he published a number of settings of Shakespeare and some other 'serious' poets. Over 30 of these songs pre-dated the Miniature Suite, so one might justifiably say that Coates made a name with his vocal music before his orchestral work took off. His songs have done well in recorded performances over the past decade or so, most recently in a Marco Polo CD issued in 1996. He continued writing songs up to within a few years of his death in 1957, though the best-remembered of them come from the years between 1909, when his first big hit, Stonecracker John, appeared, and the late 1920s, which were graced by such delights as Birdsongs at Eventide and Homeward to You.

As was the case with Wilfrid Sanderson, Coates produced many songs inspired by the sea and, especially so, the West Country (e.g., A Dinder Courtship, The Widow of Penzance, By Mendip Side and, perhaps best loved of all, the nostalgic Green Hills o' Somerset). But for all their shapeliness they are ballads; little or no attempt is made to illuminate the words, which in many cases are indeed undistinguished.

Coates was not perhaps one of the most prolific of British light music composers, except maybe as a producer of songs. Although many people connect Coates with the light concert suite, Haydn Wood actually composed more examples in that genre. It is true, however, that Coates' orchestral suites and individual movements, especially his marches, have, with scattered exceptions, survived better than those of any of his contemporaries. One may reasonably ask why this is so. Coates' work showed the hand of an experienced master craftsman; it may readily be deduced that he was for many years an orchestral player in one of the finest ensembles in the land. But many other British light music composers were excellent writers, too, and their work is also melodically attractive, Coates' music, however, is not merely melodically attractive: it is memorably melodically attractive, pointed as it is by driving rhythms. Particularly is this true of his marches, of which he produced a dozen or more which achieved enormous popularity. Some of them were adapted as signature tunes of very long-running radio programmes: Calling All Workers ('Music While You Work'), heard four times a day, five days a week, for many years, Knightsbridge ('In Town Tonight') and - not a march, but equally memorable - the valse serenade By the Sleepy Lagoon ('Desert Island Discs', still running). These in turn kept his music aggressively before the public.

By the time he died, radio was beginning to take second place to television, but Coates also wrote title music for the small screen - like the Rediffusion March: Music Everywhere (1948), while Halcyon Days, from The Three Elizabeths, was appropriated almost a decade after his death to introduce the amazingly popular adaptation of The Forsyte Saga - and indeed for the large screen. The Dam Busters March of 1954 has perhaps become Coates' single most popular movement, although High Flight (his last work, completed in December 1956; the film appeared in 1957) is scarcely less good. The main score for The Dam Busters is credited to Leighton Lucas; Coates' march is primarily title music, although quotations from it elsewhere in the film may be readily discerned.

Coates' music is still being unearthed. Apart from the 1990s recordings of First Meeting and many of the songs, already mentioned, a 1997 ASV CD conducted by John Wilson gave what was probably the first-ever performance of the charming ballet sketch Coquette and revived many other Coates rarities.

Coates began his orchestral composing career in a style owing much to Edward German, who in 1911 was perhaps the major figure in British light music, but he quickly added his own thoroughly individual features, not least the incorporation of the syncopated dance-band idiom popular in the 1920s which may he glimpsed most clearly in the last movement of The Four Centuries suite and in the 'phantasy' The Three Bears. The saxophone was particularly associated with that and other up-tempo styles and it is perhaps no accident that Coates wrote a Rhapsody for alto sax at a time when little concerted music had been penned for it. Coates' work, however, primarily explores the instrument's lyrical possibilities.Truly Eric Coates remains the key figure in British light music. But why, as a Nottinghamshire man born and bred, did he leave it to Frederic Curzon to compose a Robin Hood Suite? One last thought: Coates had no 'identity crisis'. Edward German, Montague Phillips, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - all these, and several others, were masters of light music while hoping, desperately in some cases, to be masters of something a little more serious. Eric Coates was happy to be 'the King of Light Music'. © Philip L Scowcroft

© Philip L. Scowcroft.

Enquiries to Philip at

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Philip's book 'British Light Music Composers' (ISBN 0903413 88 4) is currently out of print.

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