I was fascinated to discover that the signature tune to Roy Plomley’s Desert Island Discs was not a foregone conclusion. I had imagined that By the Sleepy Lagoon had somehow just appeared in that role. Michael J. Payne in his thesis on Coates has pointed out that the signature tune was chosen with no ‘input’ from the composer. Roy Plomley, the radio show’s first presenter and creator of the concept, had wanted sounds of ‘surf-breaking and seagulls’ however the producer felt that this ‘lacked definition’ and put forward three possibilities - By the Sleepy Lagoon and Summer Afternoon Idyll which were both by Eric Coates and Norman O'Neill's incidental music to J.M. Barrie’s play Mary Rose. History declares what was chosen. I agree with Payne that the beautiful Idyll: Summer Afternoon would have been an ideal choice with its ‘portrayal of a heady summer's afternoon, languishing in a garden on the sea-front.’
It is clear from listening to Summer Afternoon that Coates had an empathy towards Delius in spite of some harsh criticism of that composer in his autobiography. It is helpful to note that Coates did play under Delius when he was violist at Queen’s Hall.
The orchestral version of a Summer Afternoon (1932) is based closely on a song of the same title composed in 1924. It was a setting of a text by Roydon Barrie which was the pen-name of Harry Rodney Bennett who was the father of the British composer Richard Rodney Bennett.
It had originally been published by Chappell. Barrie and Coates were to collaborate on a number of times and produced hit songs such as ‘Rose of Samarkind’, ‘Birdsongs at Eventide’ and ‘A Song Remembered’.
Here in my hammock, swung across
Between two pear trees grey with moss,
That in the stillness hardly sway,
I drowse the afternoon away.
Birds are too lazy now to sing;
And golden bees with lazy wing
Drone quietly, And hardly stir
Among the spires of lavender
Chequered light and shadow pass
Under the trees up on the grass
And float and flicker, till they seem
A fairy web to snare a dream.
Slowly, my hammock is a boat
And I a dreaming wanderer float
Over that half-remembered sea
That laps the shore of what use to be.
It has been posited by Michael Payne (The Life and Music of Eric Coates, Ashgate, 2012) that the orchestral work originated in the need for Eric Coates to produce something quite rapidly in order to provide Chappell with a new orchestral piece. Other works composed at this time include The Jester at the Wedding Suite derived from the ballet, the Two Symphonic Rhapsodies ‘I pitch my lonely caravan’ and ‘Birdsongs at Eventide/I heard you singing’. At the end of 1932 Coates' most famous work, the London Everyday Suite, featuring the ‘Knightsbridge March’ was completed.
The Idyll: Summer Afternoon has a longer opening and closing sections than the song and presents birdsong which is absent from the song accompaniment. The two main melodies are virtually a direct transcription of the song. Coates had written the original with varying thematic material for verses one and two which was then repeated in verses three and four. An elaborated bridge section between ‘verses’ two and three has been composed. The harmonic structure can be read off the song score, however Coates has added a little elaboration here and there with a couple of countermelodies adding interest. The Idyll was scored for full orchestra with harp and glockenspiel.
Idyll: Summer Afternoon is a delightful, impressionistic tone poem, which is as attractive as Delius’s efforts in a similar direction. I guess that the obvious comparison is with the elder composer’s short piece Summer Evening. Clearly, Delius and Coates were appealing to different musical markets, but both pieces manage to create an atmosphere of a half-remembered landscape. Coates is drowsy as befits an afternoon day-dreaming in a hammock: it is clearly someone on their own. Delius presents (to my mind’s ear) a view from a hill over a pastoral landscape – here the lover is present.