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ERIC COATES: Thoughts on and Recollections of his Music

This short article is not a considered study of Eric Coates or his music. Those who desire such are referred to Geoffrey Self, In Town Tonight (Thames, 1986), the definitive work on Coates and his own autobiography Suite in Four Movements, reprinted, also by Thames, a few years ago. But in 109 (so far) Garlands, plus other articles for the BMS on British light music figures, I have not mentioned Coates except in passing and perhaps it is time I did.

Coates (1886-1957) has been described as the King of British Light Music and indeed, unlike Hubert Bath, Haydn Wood and Montague Phillips, not to mention Sullivan and German, he did not aspire to compose symphonic music. There were however areas of light music which he did not touch. He composed virtually nothing for the theatre. His ballets The Enchanted Garden and The Jester at the Wedding were never staged and should be reckoned, as perhaps they were always intended to be, as concert works; an earlier ballet, Seven Dwarfs, enjoyed little success. Unlike so many British light music giants - Sullivan, German, Haydn Wood, bath, Alfred Reynolds and so on - he completed no operettas or musical comedies. He came to films late in life with the title march for The Dam Busters in 1954 (Leighton Lucas is credited with much of the music for that film, though Coates' march recurs at times during the screening), following this not long before he died with the score for a film about the post-war R.A.F., High Flight (1957). Both films, yielded fine concert marches; The Dam Busters is possibly his best known composition - countless people who have never heard of Coates know this by its title. Coates' genius was exercised almost entirely in 160-odd songs, nearly all - apart from a few settings of Shakespeare and some "serious" poets - of the balled type and in orchestral music. He was himself an orchestral musician, playing viola for many years in the Queen's Hall Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood.

Coates' songs include several which have remained popular for up to ninety years: Stonecracker John, Bird Song at Eventide, Homeward to You and the nostalgic Green Hills of Somerset, one of several inspired by the West Country. One or two of them he or others transcribed for salon orchestra. As about thirty of Coates' songs pre-dated the Miniature Suite of 1911, his first significant orchestral composition, we may confidently assert that he made his name as a balladeer before turning his attention to the orchestra.

As an orchestral composer he was not a big producer. Many connect him with the light concert suite but Haydn Wood actually composed more examples. Many others composed more marches than him, though this seems belied by their memorability which caused many to be adopted as signature tunes for radio and TV programmes: Calling All Workers ("Music While You Work", heard four times a day, five days a week for over twenty yeatrs), Knightsbridge ("In Town Tonight"), Music Everywhere (the Rediffusion call sign) and Halcyon Days, the first movement of The Three Elizabeths suite ("The Forsyte Saga"). The valse serenade, By the Sleepy Lagoon, adopted to introduce the amazingly durable "Desert Island Discs" and inspired not by some South Sea island but by a scene in Sussex, is not a march, but has the same quality of memorability. In more recent years Coates' music has been heard in TV commercials.

For it is the memorability of Coates' music which largely explains his durability. Many others composed tunes as attractive as his; many others showed craftsmanship in scoring equal to his. Coates initially was inspired by Edward German, the leading figure in British light music at the start of the 20th Century and the Miniature Suite is undoubtedly Germanesque. But Coates quickly developed individual features - characteristic march rhythms (we cannot mistake a Coats march, even one of the lesser known ones) and the syncopated dance band idiom of the 1920s, glimpsed most clearly in the last movement of the Four Centuries Suite and in the "bear trot" of The Three Bears fantasy. The saxophone was particularly associated with that idiom and it may be no accident that Coates was one of the first British composers to write a concerted pieces for (alto) sax, though the Saxo-Rhapsody primarily explores the instruments lyrical capabilities.

My own experience of Coates' music began, as did so many people's, with his signature tunes. Then of course he had apart to play in the BBC's broadcast Light Music Festival in March 1949 (which I remember I absorbed greedily), by conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in The Three Elizabeths Suite in one of the Festival concerts. A few weeks later I went to Torquay on holiday and sure enough in the first concert I attended, by the Municipal Orchestra's Light Music Ensemble, there was the Suite From Meadow to Mayfair. Moving on to 18 April 1953, I was at Sheffield City Hall for a concert by the Halle Orchestra entitled "Masterpieces of English Light Music" (few major orchestral series would consider such a programme nowadays). After a first half, conducted by George Weldon, of Sullivan, German, Percy Grainger (not "English", but never mind) and Haydn Wood, Coates himself took over the baton for the second half, which was entirely devoted to his music. It is perhaps worth recalling the pieces he conducted, as these may have been some of his particular favourites: Prelude and Hornpipe from the Four Centuries suite, one of the most attractive bits of historical pastiche by a British light music composer; the delicious "Dance of the orange Blossoms" from The Jester at the Wedding; the Saxo-Rhapsody (Soloist, Walter-Lear); By the Sleepy Lagoon; and Three Elizabeths.

A Splendid concert; Coates was a fine conductor of his own music. For the past forty years I have lived in Doncaster and even here Coates' music has not been ignored, the heartening thing being that virtually all the performances I remember have been by student ensembles under the aegis of Doncaster's fine Music Centre: London Day by Day (the full suite, not just Knightbridge), High Flight, The Three Bears, Saxo Rhapsody and, of course, The Dam Busters. I understand The Merrymakers Overture was rehearsed by the senior youth orchestra, but not performed in public.

Coates' music has survived better than most, the doldrums into which British light music was plagued for some thirty years and from which it is hopefully beginning to emerge. Nearly half a century ago a record dealer complained to me, that "Coates´ music always sounds the same". What I think he meant is that it is thoroughly characteristic, not merely pleasant and anonymous. Characteristic music usually survives.

© Philip L Scowcroft.

Enquiries to Philip at

8 Rowan Mount



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

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