Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Eric Coates: Is English Light Music a Dying Art?

I make no excuse for posting this essay by Eric Coates. It is largely self-explanatory, however I could not resist adding a few glosses at the end.
As I look at the trend of musical matters today I ask myself: ‘What does the future hold for our composers of light music?’ Present-day conditions seem to point to the unpleasant fact that this form of art will die out unless something is done to give our younger composers of light music the encouragement which, once upon a time, was theirs. Do we appreciate the heritage of English light music or are we content to let it die? Are we grateful for the melodies that have survived the years, for those songs and tunes that have been handed down to us from our composers of yesterday? What of the music of Purcell, Dibdin, Arne, and Boyce (to mention only a few); the carefree ‘It was a lover and his lass’ or ‘Tom Bowling’ with its simple appeal, and the charming ‘Cherry Ripe.’ [1]
One could fill a page with the names of the familiar melodies which our writers of the past have given us, unaffected melodies which breathe the spirit of England. Melody! Where should we be without it? How much the poorer, for instance, should we be without the lilting melodies of Arthur Sullivan, that prolific composer of so many invigorating tunes! And what of Edward German? How many of us would care to forego the wistful appeal of this most fastidious of composers, who caught the spirit of the English countryside as none other has done. [2]
They were great men, and stood head and shoulders above their contemporaries in their particular line.  Both were masters of their craft and each spoke to us in their inimitable way, through the medium of the orchestra- for it is in the orchestration that the composer can make his personality felt more surely than in any other form of musical expression. [3]

About this time, of course, there were several very successful composers of light music in the theatre world who delighted us all with their haunting tunes – Leslie Stuart, Sydney Jones, Lionel Monckton, Howard Talbot, and Paul Rubens; even the school-children of today seem to know their songs. Sullivan and German were, however, in a class by themselves because of their knowledge of the orchestra; for, with the exception of Sydney Jones and Howard Talbot, most of the writers for the theatre of those days were obliged to call on the services of an expert orchestrator to arrange their music for them, as indeed they do in the theatre today. [4]

Most people do not realise that the writing of a light work is a serious business and takes just as much thought and skill to produce as one of the ‘heavier’ type –the symphony, for instance; and I think the reason the former is not now taken seriously is that far too many writers are content to jot down a top-line and sit back while the orchestrator does the rest. We shall never produce a future school of light music so long as this practice persists, and the only way to improve matters is by encouraging our younger composers to study the difficult art of orchestration. Our Academies of Music should wake up to the fact that something must be done about it. They should enlist the services of up-to-date professors who are sympathetically disposed towards light music of this type which entertains and delights the ear without being vulgar. The BBC (which does so much to encourage our moderns) [5] should work hand-in-hand with our Academies and stimulate an interest in this practically forgotten art.

Not long ago I asked one of the Directors of the BBC why certain orchestral works of the more popular type were not included in our broadcasts of representative English music and I received the reply that such works were excluded for the reason that they could be heard any day in our restaurants and theatres and over the air by smaller combinations. [6] But surely these works should be played occasionally at any rate, by the sized orchestra which the composer had in mind when he scored them, otherwise it seems unfair to the composer-the very absence of such works from programmes casting a slur on this kind of music and doing a great deal of harm through acting as a deterrent to any young composer who might feel the urge to express himself in this way.

I am not suggesting that programme-builders should give us concerts  composed entirely of light music, for that would defeat its own ends – too much of the same thing is always a mistake- but I would like to see the masterpieces of light music sandwiched between works by the masters of the classics.  It would be the right gesture to make to all those composers who through their inspiration have given so much pleasure to the music-loving public, and it would bring light music into its own. It may be the one of these days someone will come along to right the wrong being done to the wealth of lovely melodies which this country possesses. We may then look forward to a revival of interest in our much neglected light music, and the exponent of this delicate art will once again receive the recognition he deserves.
Eric Coates Radio Times c.1942 (reprinted in The Musical Digest No.6 Summer 1948)

[1] The music of Henry Purcell has been rediscovered in the 20th century and has been widely recorded and written about. To a lesser extent the same can be said about William Boyce and Thomas Arne. Dibdin remains a largely undiscovered country. It is fair to say that none of these composers currently capture the general musical public’s imagination at the present time (2015). The three melodies that are noted by Coates have survived, largely through Thomas Wood’s Sea Songs (Tom Bowling) and perhaps Coates own musical portrait of ‘Covent Garden’ (Cherry Ripe). 'It was a lover and his lass' remains popular.

[2] Coates notes that Sullivan ‘stood head and shoulders above their contemporaries in their particular line.’ I guess that he is referring to the sheer melodic achievement of their operettas rather than his symphonic and orchestral works.

[3] Arthur Sullivan has survived as the musical partner of G&S. However, in recent decades his ‘non-Savoy’ music has been investigated and has been found to be interesting and worthy of rediscovery, if not revelatory.  The same could apply to Edward German. However Coates would appear to be alluding to to the idealised English world created in Merrie England. Recent evaluations of German’s Symphonies and orchestral suites reveal a composer who is competent, imaginative and deserving our attention, if not at the forefront of Edwardian musical endeavour.

[4] It is highly unlikely that school-children in 2015 would even have heard of Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot let alone know their songs. One does wonder how prevalent this engagement with these tunes was even in Eric Coates’ time. These composers of musical theatre are little-recalled today with the possible exception of The Arcadians (Talbot) and The Geisha with music by Sydney Jones which have been recorded and are given occasional revivals.

[5] Eric Coates would have regarded himself lucky that he did not have to deal with William Glock at the BBC. 

[6] This is not longer the case; however Classic FM does play a small number of light classics. Major recording projects such as Guilds’ Golden Age of Light Music and Marco Polo’s survey of a number of light music composers, including Eric Coates have allowed listeners in the 21st century approach a huge range of this genre of music. 

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