Ernest John Moeran, known as Jack to his friends,
was born in Heston, Middlesex on 31st December 1894, the second son of the
Rev J. W. W. and Esther Moeran. Shortly after his birth the family moved to
Bacton, in the remote Norfolk Fen Country. As a child he learned to play the
violin and piano, and made some early compositional efforts while at Uppingham
School (works he later destroyed).
In 1913 he enrolled at the Royal College of Music
to study piano and composition under Sir Charles Stanford. His studies were
cut short by the outbreak of war, and in 1914 he enlisted as a motorcycle
despatch rider in the 6th (cyclist) Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment.
On 3rd May 1917, at Bullecourt in France, Moeran
received a severe head injury, with shrapnel embedded too close to the brain
for removal, and underwent what would now be considered primitive head surgery
which involved the fitting of a metal plate into the skull. Unsurprisingly
this was to affect him for the rest of his life.
After discharge from the services on a disability
pension he returned briefly to teach at Uppingham before returning in 1920
to the Royal College, studying there under John Ireland. This period, one
of the most active in his creative output, saw a number of important early
works, including the String Quartet in A Minor, the First Rhapsody for orchestra,
the Piano Trio, the Violin Sonata and a number of works for solo piano. Moeran
had also by this time begun collecting folk songs, visiting pubs, especially
in his native Norfolk, and noting down the old songs that were still to be
heard at the time, something he was to partake in for the rest of his life.
Some of these folksongs Moeran set to his own arrangements, and collections
for a variety of solo and assemble vocal settings were to follow for the rest
of his life. Of particular interest are the setting for voice and piano of
Six Folksongs from Norfolk, Six Suffolk Folksongs and Songs from County Kerry.
By the middle of the 20's Moeran had struck up
a close friendship with Philip Heseltine, better known under his pen-name
as the composer Peter Warlock. In 1925, together with the artist Hal Collins,
they rented a house in Eynsford, Kent, where they were to live together for
three years of allegedly wild, drunken anarchy which brought them an assortment
of musical and artistic visitors and the occasional attention of the local
police. This period also saw an understandable decline in the regularity of
Moeran's musical output. It is also thought that at Eynsford Moeran developed
the alcoholism which too often overshadowed the rest of his life. On leaving
the house as funds ran dry Moeran began to move towards a stylistic reappraisal
which was to see him moving away from the earlier influence of composers such
as Delius and Ireland, especially on his use of harmony. The first instrumental
works to show signs of this were the Sonata for Two Violins and the String
Trio, written during a period of ongoing illness and for the first time composed
straight onto the page rather than through experimentation at the keyboard,
as was the choral cycle Songs of Springtime.
It was also at this time that Moeran began to show
a much greater interest in his Irish roots - his father was Dublin-born though
raised in England, and Moeran had spent some time in Ireland while serving
in the army, but it was not until the 1930's that Moeran really switched the
influence on his compositions away from the Norfolk countryside and towards
Ireland, particularly County Kerry in the far south west of the country. He
became particularly fond of the small town of Kenmare, and for the rest of
his life it was to here that here would return for musical inspiration. The
work which was to occupy much of the 1930s had in fact been commissioned and
started in 1924 - his Symphony in G Minor. Almost finished in the 20's, Moeran
abandoned work on it, not to resume until 1934, and finally finish on January
24th 1937 in Kerry. The success of this major work seemed to boost Moeran's
confidence, and almost immediately he began work on what has been seen by
some as the Symphony's natural companion, the Violin Concerto. This piece,
completed in 1942 after five years, is imbued with Irish spirit and lyricism,
and whereas the Symphony is often wracked with gloom and despair, the Violin
Concerto seems to offer hope and enlightenment in response. Once again the
country was plunged into war, and one can only assume that this overshadowing
of what was Moeran's finest compositional period has had a lot to do with
his later obscurity. In 1945 he married the cellist Peers Coetmore and for
her he wrote a Cello Concerto and Cello Sonata both of which are among the
greatest of his musical achievements. Other major works of the period include
the Sinfonietta, the Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (the nearest he came
to writing a full Piano Concerto), the Fantasy Quartet for Oboes and Strings
and the Serenade in G, a partial reworking of his (later withdrawn) Farrago
Suite of 1932.
As the 1940's wore on his health declined. Moeran
was wrestling with a second symphony which seemed imminent at several points
in time, yet was never completed and later disappeared. The marriage to Peers,
never destined to be one of the great romances, was faltering, and his drinking
continued. By 1950 he was living in increasingly poor health in Kenmare, worried
that his mental instability would result in being certified insane, unable
to concentrate for more than a short time.
On the afternoon of 1st December 1950, during stormy
weather, he was seen to fall from the pier at Kenmare, and was dead on his
recovery from the water. The cause of death was stated to have been a cerebral
haemorrhage following a heart attack, and though there have been suggestions
of suicide there is no direct evidence of this. He was buried shortly after
in a well-attended funeral in Kenmare, where he was greatly loved.
Following his death there has been fitful interest
in recording and performing Moeran's music. The vast majority of his instrumental
music has at some point been released commercially, though his excellent vocal
output has been less favouably treated. Look for the Symphony and Concertos
on mid-price Chandos and the String Quartets and Trio on a budget Naxos CD
for starting points.
The greatest of Moeran's music has a rich lyricism
often rooted in the folk songs of England and Ireland, though always original.
He had a great command of orchestral and instrumental colour from the very
earliest compositions, and was able to create moments of great apparent spontaneity
despite a rather slow, laborious compositional process which reveals itself
in a relatively small total output of a little over 100 pieces. It seemed
that he was on the cusp of new directions with his Second Symphony, a work
on which he struggled for at least five years up to his death, but of which
very little has survived.