Friday, 24 February 2017

Eric Coates: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery' (1946)

Donald Brook wrote a series of books presenting attractive short studies or pen-portraits of a wide variety of composers, conductors, pianists, violinists and authors. He had met these people and had a chance to speak to them about their achievements and interests. Sir Granville Bantock endorsed Composer’ Gallery (1946) by insisting that it ‘will be welcomed by music lovers and the larger public throughout the civilised world.’
On a personal note, this was one of the earliest second hand books about music that I bought in the days before the internet, it served as my introduction to a wide range of composers and their music.  I include several footnotes to Brook’s pen-portrait of Eric Coates.
The main resources for students of Eric Coates music are Geoffrey Self’s In Town Tonight: A Centenary Study of the Life and Music of Eric Coates (London: Thames, 1986) and Michael Payne’s, The Life and Music of Eric Coates (Farnham, Ashgate, 2012).  

TURNING to lighter music for a moment, we find that Eric Coates [(1886-1957] is one of the few who can write cheerful melodies that appeal to the masses without being musically vulgar. We have the assurance of many eminent composers that this is not as easy as one would imagine.
Eric Coates, who is in no way related to Albert Coates the conductor, was born at Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, in 1886, son of a physician. [1] He has happy memories of a carefree boyhood spent in the quiet old house [2] in which his father practised for forty years, and he recalls that his earliest efforts at music-making started when a friend from London happened to leave a fiddle at the house after a visit to the family. Eric, aged about five or six, began to experiment with the instrument, and within a couple of weeks could play quite a number of little tunes to amuse himself.
This led ultimately to violin lessons with Georg Ellenberger of Nottingham, instruction in harmony from Dr Ralph Horner [3] of West Bridgford (Nottinghamshire), and, at the age of twelve, the leadership of a little string orchestra in his native village. Then his father generously paid ten shillings a season to the Nottingham Sacred Harmonic Society for the privilege of allowing his son to play in their orchestra, but by the time he was sixteen, Eric had become such a useful member of the ensemble that instead of accepting a fee, they paid him half-a-guinea a concert for his services.
Coates began to compose when he was very small, but Dr Horner forbad him to do so and insisted that all his efforts should be put into his study of harmony. Despite this injunction and a stern warning from his father about ‘wasting time’ he continued to write.

He was still at school when he took up the viola as well, and as he seemed to make very rapid progress he wrote to Dan Godfrey, the conductor of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, asking if there were likely to be any vacancies for viola players. Godfrey replied saying that he wanted a viola player who could ‘double’ on a wind instrument, so Coates prevailed once again upon the parental generosity and obtained a fine Boehm flute. Although he soon became quite an accomplished player, he never succeeded in getting into Godfrey's orchestra.

The question of his career brought a dismal suggestion from his father's bank manager eulogizing that monotonous profession. Eric was horrified, and after several feverish entreaties, his father at last agreed to give him the chance of a year in London to study music, on the condition that if he did not succeed within twelve months, he was to return home and go into a bank.
Coates went to the Royal Academy of Music in 1906 determined to win his laurels as a professional musician. He studied the viola under Lionel Tertis, and composition with Frederick Corder. [4] In a surprisingly short time he won a scholarship for the viola, and then resolving to become independent, set about finding part-time work so that he could pay for his own rooms as well. Again, he succeeded; for a friendship with a professional viola player enabled him to secure sufficient work as a deputy in various theatre orchestras to proclaim his financial independence.
After eighteen months at the Academy he went to South Africa with the Hambourg String Quartet, [5] and while he was there he wrote his first great success: the song ‘Stonecracker John’, which sold over half-a-million copies.
Returning to England, he joined the Beecham Orchestra in 1909, and in the same year his ‘Four Old English Songs’ were sung by Princess Olga Ouroussoff [6] at the Queen's Hall Promenade concerts. Later, these songs were made famous by Melba, who sang them all over the world.
Two years later Sir Henry Wood performed his Miniature Suite at the Promenade concerts, and invited Coates to become his principal viola. The invitation was accepted, and the appointment
lasted until 1918, when Coates gave up the viola and never touched it again.

In 1913 he married Miss Phyllis Black, daughter of Francis Black R.B.A., the eminent artist. Their son Austin, born in 1922, has been serving as a flying-officer with the R.A.F. in India.
As a child, Austin loved the story of the three bears, and persuaded his father to put it to music. The result was the well-known Phantasy, which was first produced at the Eastbourne Festival in 1926. I might add here that Mrs. Eric Coates wrote the story of The Enchanted Garden, and several other successes enjoyed by her husband.

Coates's first appearance as a composer-conductor was when he directed his Summer Days at the Queen's Hall in 1919. Since then he has toured extensively abroad, and has always enjoyed a great welcome in such countries as Norway, Sweden, Holland and Denmark.

It is now many years since he wrote his world-famous London Suite. The BBC was partly responsible for its phenomenal success, because the ‘Knightsbridge March’ was chosen for that remarkably popular feature In Town Tonight. [7] Within a fortnight of its debut, the BBC was swamped with over twenty thousand letters from listeners eager to know the name of the jolly tune. When the London Suite was performed in Copenhagen the audience went almost mad with excitement, and the members of the orchestra joined in by applauding on their instruments,
creating the most cacophonous furore ever known in the capital.

There is of course the old story of the provincial gentleman who told the ticket-clerk of a London tube station that he had forgotten his destination but knew that a song had been written about it. The clerk immediately burst into an ear-splitting whistle and issued a single to Knightsbridge!

Eric Coates's Sleepy Lagoon [8] was a success as soon as it came from the publishers' hands, but when someone in America added words to it, the sales went up to something like half-a-million within a few weeks. Coates knew nothing about it until he received a cable from the States congratulating him on having written ‘No. 1 song hit in America.’ [8]

His latest [1946] works include the Three Elizabeth’s Suite, the ‘Eighth Army March’ and the ‘Salute the Soldier March’. It can be said with little fear of contradiction that Coates is responsible for the great ‘march vogue’ we are experiencing at the present time.

Although he specializes in light music, he is absolutely sincere about it, and takes the greatest care with his work. ‘Sincerity is the keynote of existence’ he says, and he abominates people who write with their tongues in their cheeks. He listens critically to all new music, and although he enjoys the work of such people as Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Arthur Bliss and Arnold Bax, he feels very doubtful about much of the modern music we are expected to accept to-day. He finds difficulty in appreciating the modern trend one finds in the work of many of the American and Russian composers and feels that they concentrate too much upon effects because they are afraid of being thought conventional.

There is now such a craze for originality that in trying to be ‘different’ people will write almost anything. Coates is acknowledged by millions of musicians as the link between classical and ‘Light’ music, and he can best be described as one who produces light music from a classical background, for he was brought up on Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. He cannot tolerate banality in music. One critic declares him to be the ‘first English composer to treat modern syncopation seriously’ and another has said that he is ‘the only modern composer who can write a simple, popular melody without being common.’

He is very fond of dancing, and frequently complains about the sentimental drivel sung by the crooners, for he demands a sparkling vitality in dance music. At one time, Ambrose [9] would always put on his liveliest tunes when he saw Eric Coates and his partner taking the floor.
Eric Coates confesses that he is an incorrigible lover of speed. He can never find a car that will go fast enough for him, and delights in air travel.  He also enjoys photography, and is always looking for a better camera than the one he already possesses.

[1] Hucknall was known as Hucknall Torkard until 1916. The composer’s father, William Harrison Coates, was a local doctor. In his spare time, he was an amateur musician. He played the flute and ran the St Mary [Magdalene] Church Choir.   
[2] Shortly after Eric Coates’ birth, the family moved to Tenter Hill. Here Coates grew up. The house bears a plaque provided by The Eric Coates Society and Ashfield District Council.
[3] I could find little out about Georg Ellenberger, save he was a onetime pupil of Joachim. Dr Ralph Joseph Horner (1848-1926) was a local musician, composer, conductor and teacher.
[4] Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) was an English violist and well-respected teacher. Frederick Corder (1852-1932) was an English composer, conductor and music teacher.  He is best recalled as the teacher of Josef Holbrooke, Arnold Bax and Granville Bantock. His musical compositions have disappeared.
[5] The Hambourg String Quartet was founded by Boris Hambourg (1884-1954) a Russian born cellist. At the time of the South African tour the members were Jan Hambourg (violin), John Robinson (violin) Eric Coates (viola) and Boris Hambourg (cello).
[6] Princess Olga Ouroussoff (? -1909), a Russian born soprano, was Sir Henry Wood’s first wife. They were married in 1898.  The name and title have been a bit exaggerated. Her given name was Olga Michailoff. Henry Wood refers to her as ‘Princess Olga Ouroussoff’, in his memoirs, but according to Arthur Jacobs (Henry J. Wood; Maker of the Proms, 1994) she was entitled to neither the rank nor the surname, although her mother was Princess Sofiya Urusova.
[7] In Town Tonight was first broadcast on Saturday, 18 November 1933.  The Radio Times reports that it was ‘A Topical Supplement of the Week's Programmes…
featuring items of topical interest which have come to hand too late for inclusion in the printed programmes of the Press or The Radio Times. ‘In Town Tonight’ has been started experimentally as a weekly framework for the various 'surprise items' which have been hitherto scattered about the programmes, often at times inconvenient to the ordinary listener.’
[8] ‘Sleepy Lagoon’ was famously used as the theme tune to the long-running radio programme Desert Island Discs, first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 29 January 1942 with Roy Plumley. The first castaway was Vic Oliver, the Austrian-born British actor and radio comedian.
[8] ‘Sleepy Lagoon’ reached Number 1 in the USA Billboard Charts during April 1942. It was played by Harry James and his Orchestra.
[9] Benjamin Baruch Ambrose (11 September 1896 – 11 June 1971), known professionally as Ambrose or Bert Ambrose, was an English bandleader and violinist. Ambrose became the leader of a highly acclaimed British dance 

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