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By Peter Worsley
The Light Music Society
"By The Sleepy Lagoon" - The Music Of Eric Coates - Volume 1
Long established as the theme-tune of BBC Radios long-running Desert Island Discs the Valse-Serenade By The Sleepy Lagoon (1930) immortalises the music, if not the name, of Eric Coates among younger generations of listeners. Albeit like Ketèlbey and others of that ilk now eclipsed by the cruel vagaries of changing musical fashion, Coatess superb orchestral contribution to popular musical culture, so redolent of the period between the wars, is undimmed by the passing years. A consummate all-round musical technician in all senses and also a fine conductor who in his day was hailed as
the uncrowned king of British light music, he remains a colossus of the salon genre.
Eric Coates was born in the Nottinghamshire mining village of Hucknall on 27th August, 1886. His family, middle-class, comprised his father W. Harrison Coates, a local doctor and his mother, Mary Jane, who was by all accounts a more than competent pianist. At the age of six his latent musical talent was stirred by the gift of a violin and he studied this instrument, and also harmony, privately before entering the London Royal Academy at the rather mature age of twenty, in 1906, at first intending to make viola under Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) his main study. Already regarded as a songwriter of promise by the colleges Principal Mackenzie, however, Coates also enrolled for composition with Frederick Corder (1852-1932).
From the start of his career Coates was in some measure driven by financial necessity and soon developed a keen commercial sense. As early as 1907 in fact, while still a student, he supported himself as a violist in the Vaudeville (and later the Savoy) Theatre orchestras. After graduating from the Royal Academy he toured for two years with Thomas Beecham and by 1910 was hired as second viola in Sir Henry J. Woods Queens Hall Orchestra. Meanwhile, his professional reputation as a songwriter had been established with the success in 1909 of Stonecracker John.
Principal viola with the same orchestra from 1912 until 1919, Coates was dismissed by Wood after neuritis had impaired his playing capacity, but not before he had had opportunity to work under the batons of such distinguished visiting figures as Elgar, Edward German, Delius, Holst, Granville Bantock, Richard Strauss, Ethel Smyth, Frank Bridge and Vaughan Williams. Coatess own Miniature Suite, dedicated to and first performed by Wood, had been introduced by the Queens Hall Orchestra at the1911 Promenade Concerts, while the Valsette" Wood Nymphs (1917) also became a popular encore with the Wood and Alick Maclean Orchestras.
From 1919 onwards Coatess orchestral tone-portraits and suites started to appear at regular intervals, beginning with Summer Days. Composed when normal life had been restored following the war to end all wars of 1914-1918, this nostalgically pastoral three-movement sinfonietta was first given by Wood and the Queens Hall Orchestra in October 1919 and was much admired by, among others, Elgar. Its stylised, escapist, "chocolate box" representation of the countryside had established it as a favourite well before Coates recorded it, in the Wigmore Hall, in 1926. His songs, including I Pitch
My Lonely Caravan At Night (1921), I Heard You Singing (1923) and Bird Songs At Eventide (1926), were featured and recorded by the great singers of their day and proved successful on a scale sufficient to warrant conversion into the two Symphonic Rhapsodies heard here. The high baritone vocalist on the first of these is the Rt. Hon. William George Edgar Brownlow (1902-1984), a London-born scion of the Lurgan baronetcy, who was noted on the concert circuit.
The Phantasy Cinderella (1929), although it first saw the light as a concert item, displays a strongly choreographic quality suggestive of the ballet, as also does The Jester at the Wedding (1932). A suite in six movements inspired by an unpublished short story written by his wife Phyl, this last ranked high among the composers own favourites. In 1934 he recorded just two movements from it, No. 1, March (The Princess Arrives) and No. 4, Valse (The Dance of the Orange Blossoms).
As a founder-member and director of the Performing Rights Society, Coates was always sensitive to the practical functions and applications of popular music. Indeed, his musical creativity was marked by an ongoing adjustment to the specific requirements of recordings and broadcasting. His first London Suite (originally subtitled London Everyday, 1932) spawned the celebrated March, Knightsbridge, which, along with the "bespoke" march London Bridge (1934) and other Coates works, was frequently used in the context of radio programmes.