Much criticism of the early years of the Cheltenham Festival was aimed at works which seemed to exhibit a relatively conservative concept of ‘modern music’.
Malcolm MacDonald, in The Symphonies of Havergal Brian. Volume 2, Symphonies 13-29. (Kahn & Averill, 1978) summed up much criticism of many of the festival’s ‘novelties’: ‘....it may be [a] prevailing 'Englishness' that leads one to view it as almost a representative manque of that peculiarly English genre, the 'Cheltenham Symphony': the formally correct, harmonically fairly innocuous symphony in a 'modern English' idiom (Post-Hindemith, post-neo-classical Stravinsky, with some post-Vaughan Williams tunes, if we must be unkind) acceptable to the English critical establishment of the 1950's but with little to offer more exploratory minds.’ I understand that he later retracted the force of this comment. I am glad he did, as I am a great fan of the so-called Cheltenham Symphony’.
In spite of this seemingly ‘innocuous’ diet of modern music, it must have come as a wee bit of a surprise when a new piece, Interlude: The Unknown Singer, by the then doyen of light music was given its first performance at the 1952 Cheltenham Festival. It was performed by the BBC Midland Light Orchestra conducted by the composer on 20 July 1952. Also heard at that concert of ‘light music’ was Coates Valse from the Four Centuries Suite.
Other premieres that year included Richard Arnell’s String Quartet No.2, op.14, Arthur Benjamin’s Piano Concerto (quasi un fantasia), Geoffrey Bush’s Overture: The Spanish Rivals, Anthony Collins’ Hogarth Suite for solo oboe and string orchestra, Gerald Finzi’s Suite: Love’s Labour Lost, op.28, John Gardner’s Variations on a Waltz of Carl Nielsen, the revised Symphony No.1 by John Veale and William Wordsworth’s Sinfonia in A minor for string orchestra, op.6.
Clearly, looking at the above list, very few works have entered the repertoire: the Finzi is the exception, although live performances of this piece are few and far between. I think only the Arnell Quartet has been professionally recorded (Dutton Epoch). There are radio broadcast ‘downloads’ of some of the other pieces.
None of the new works (that I have heard, or read reviews about) can be regarded as avant-garde or cutting edge: certainly not by the standards of then contemporary ‘modernist’ music being composed on the continent, or by the British composers Humphrey Searle and Elisabeth Lutyens. In actual fact, Coates Interlude harks back to a pre-war light music tradition, which in 1952 would have been seen as ‘dated.’
Eric Coates: Interlude -The Unknown Singer was written after a lean period for the composer. Geoffrey Self notes that after an illness, Coates has been advised to give up smoking. The composer’s son Austin wrote: ‘For three years he didn’t write a note of music, not connecting this in any way with smoking. Then one day he thought, ‘Doctors be damned. I must have a cigarette.’ And musical ideas promptly began to flow again. It was only then he realised the connection.’ The musical silence was broken with the completion of the score of the present work on 24 May 1952. At this time the composer was living in Selsey, on the South Coast.
The composer’s wife, Phyl, (Phyllis Marguerite Black) had been admitted to hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Whilst she was recovering in hospital, Coates stated that the idea of the work occurred to him. In his important study of the composer, The Life and Music of Eric Coates, Michael Payne (Ashgate, 2012) cites a letter from Coates to Oscar Preuss (24/02/1952):
‘Early one morning, as I slept, I dreamt I heard someone singing from out of a deep wood – it was a lovely soprano voice. I listened to the melody the unseen soprano was singing and to my astonishment, on waking I remembered every note of it. Such a thing had never happened before and I can assure any possible readers that it saved me a great deal of trouble, besides getting me out of an awkward predicament. And so my dream-melody became “The Unknown Singer” The original title had been ‘A Voice in the Night’.
The Interlude -The Unknown Singer is restrained, with an attractive melody for saxophone which has been described as representing a crooning singer. There is no outstanding climax in nearly seven minutes of music. However, the composer makes use of three melodies, which are, according to Payne presented in ternary form and ‘is essentially a set of variations’ on these tunes though none are played in combination or counterpoint.
This is a beautiful miniature, which deserves to be in the repertoire. It seems to have been ignored, even by aficionados of Eric Coates.
As far as I know there is currently only one performance of this piece currently available on CD. This is Eric Coates: 17 Orchestral Pieces played by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Wilson. It was released on the ASV label in 1997. I understand that is has been deleted, but is still regularly available at Amazon. The score was published in an arrangement for solo piano (Chappell & Co., 1954) as well as for light orchestra (Aldwick, c.1952)