Sunday, 9 November 2008

Cecil Coles: Cortège – a piece for Remembrance Day?

They shall grow not old,
As we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them.
Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

There were many promising composers killed during the First World War. Perhaps we think immediately of George Butterworth –and his ravishing orchestral Rhapsody – A Shropshire Lad. Then there was Ernest Farrar, who although not as well known as Butterworth, had already made a name for himself in musical circles. He is now perhaps remembered as a teacher of Gerald Finzi. But one of the most gifted composers to have been killed is perhaps also one of the least known – Cecil Coles.

Cecil Coles was Scottish: he was born near the lovely Galloway market town of Kirkcubright in 1888. In 1906 he went to the London College of Music. Although he had won a scholarship, he was always rather short of cash. There is an apocryphal story told that he used to stand outside a nearby pickle factory and enjoy the smell for his lunch! Fortunately he made an impression with an older lady called Miss Nancy Brooke. She was a lecturer at Morley College and soon took young Cecil under her wing.

At Morley College, he met Gustav Holst who had been appointed director there in 1907. Soon Coles was a member of the orchestra and was helping to get it into a state where they could give respectable performances. The relationship between the two men blossomed and Coles was soon helping Holst out with his teaching duties.

In 1911 the two composer-friends set off for a holiday in the Swiss Alps and although it was a short break the two men became quite close. And of course the rumour of war were spreading at this time. But the really strange thing was this. Two men – one who had been trained in Germany and whose middle names were Frederick Gottlieb and the other who had to drop the ‘von’ from his name to avoid prejudice, and who was suspected of being a spy when visiting Thaxted, were discussing the world situation. It was seen as a tragedy by these two men that cultural links between the two great nations were about to be shattered. Coles had been assistant conductor of the Stuttgart Royal Opera House and had a promising career ahead of him. Yet all this – along with much else - was to be destroyed in war.

Cecil Coles went on to serve a distinguished career in the Queen Victoria Rifles. He corresponded regularly with his older friend and sent Gustav drafts of his music for comment and correction.

His final composition was composed when he was on active service. The suite Behind the Lines was a four movement orchestral piece composed in 1917. Two of the movements – The Wayside Shrine and Rumours were never found after Coles's death, however we are fortunate in having the first movement Estimanet du Carrefour (coffee house or tavern at the crossroads)and a piano score of the third Cortège which was recently realized by Martyn Brabbins.

Cecil Coles was killed whilst bravely helping to bring some wounded back behind the lines. Shortly after the end of the war Holst dedicated his beautiful Ode to Death to ‘Cecil Coles and the others.’ Yet Coles is the only person mentioned by name: this shows the affection and regard that the eldest man had for his friend.

But the story has a happy ending. Cecil Coles had left behind a wife and a baby daughter, Catharine. Of course the child never knew her father – but as a little girl she was enrolled at St Paul’s School for Girls in Hammersmith. And her music teacher was Gustav Holst…


It is fair to say that Cortège could take its place at any national service of Remembrance. And in some ways it would be a more impressive number that Walford Davies Solemn Melody. In fact this is a deeply moving piece that nearly always brings a tear to the eye.

Cecil Coles Cortège can be heard on Hyperion CDA67293

2 comments:

nathan said...

Thank you for sharing this.

Elaine said...

Good to find this, I am hoping to put together a small exhibition at Morley next year about the Great War, Holst and the students who sang in the trenches and didn't come back. Any information will be gratefully received and acknowledged.
Elaine.andrews@morleycollege.ac.uk