John mi vida, white-hot flame of my heart: In celebration of your latest award, I’m serenading you tonight with a song I know you know, because you’ve played it and I’ve sung it, and somewhere in that magical Music Room out there, you and I are playing and singing it together.
Above John, his award, and a Chandos exec: Eric Coates’s enduring 1926 sheet music hit, “Bird Songs at Eventide” sung by Liverpool-born mezzo Kathryn Rudge, played by RAM professor James Baillieu.
Over the quiet hills
Slowly the shadows fall;
Far down the echoing vale
Birds softly call;
Slowly the golden sun
Sinks in the dreaming west;
Bird songs at eventide
Call me to rest.
Love, though the hours of day
Sadness of heart may bring,
When twilight comes again
Sorrows take wing;
For when the dusk of dreams
Comes with the falling dew,
Bird songs at eventide
Call me to you.
~Harry Rodney Bennett (1890-1948), writing as Royden Barrie
How’s this for a coincidence? The man who gave my bonny John Wilson—then a struggling young conductor of 24—a wristwatch that belonged to his father was the same man who authored Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr, a well-researched, well-regarded Oxford Press bio of the legendary hero of the Filipinos, Dr Jose Rizal (1861-1896).* Something about you obviously touches the hearts of old men, John. The man’s name was Austin Coates (1922-1997), son of the English light music composer, Eric Coates (1886-1957). (Download his “Dancing Nights” conducted by my beloved John Wilson with the BBC Concert Orchestra here.)
Novelist Rizal modeled the heroine of his first novel, Noli Me Tangere, after his distant but constant lover. Maria Clara represents the Ideal Filipina: beautiful, feminine, loving, faithful, pious and true; she also gives her name to our traditional dress.
It was Leonor’s letters, letters filled with love, sweet reminiscences, and encouragement, that kept Rizal going throughout his years in Europe, first as a lonely medical student, then as a crusading novelist. I can feel the exquisite pain of their long-distance romance when I hear the song above.
*Pinoy alert! The complete TV bio-series in Tagalog, Illustrado, is on the GMA channel on YouTube and can be accessed here.
I was twelve when The Forsyte Saga was first shown on American TV and I thought it was the coolest series ever.* It was about a large, rich and, though unconnected, influential family living in late-capitalist England circa 1879, who keep getting into pretty heated conflicts with each other—which at the bottom are really about, more or less, the value of art and the inner life vs commerce—all the while being beautifully attired and beautifully well-spoken. Hearing this royal fanfare from “Halcyon Days” that opened the show was enough to get me all excited with anticipation on a Sunday night, but it wasn’t until last year around May when I finally discovered the composer of the piece, Eric Coates, plus the rest of this ravishing movement, when I fell in love with conductor John Wilson and developed a raging need to get close to the music he’s close to.
Soames played by Eric Porter—The Man of Property, Noted Art Collector, and about as Mr Wrong as you can get—mistook his wife for a soulless mannequin and, in novelist John Galsworthy’s sardonic words, “asserted his marital rights and acted like a man” in this scene, in which the BBC made shocking good use of Nyree Dawn Porter’s lovely embonpoint.
My beloved John Wilson conducted this 29 March, 2022 in Salford, as part of a program devoted exclusively to the music of prolific BBC composer, Eric Coates. It was glorious.
During a live-to-streaming broadcast,bonny John was kind enough to share his thoughts about the foremost 20th century composer of English Light Music, Eric Coates (1886 – 1957):
John was all of 26 when he first conducted a recording of “The Enchanted Garden” with the BBC Concert Orchestra in 1998 for Chandos.
ON COATES’S PLACE IN ENGLISH MUSIC
“Well you know, people often say that there’s nobody between Purcell and Elgar, there’s this three-hundred-year sort of gap when we were a land without music—but there was this one composer of genius and significance between that…1870s…which is Sullivan, and it was Sullivan who was sort of the founding father of what we might call, uh, Light Music in England with his “Overture di Ballo”, and that’s aside from his partnership with Gilbert. After Sullivan you had Edward German, and by the time you get to his successor, Eric Coates, the new medium of broadcasting means that this school of me-tic-ulously crafted, uh, pieces for orchestra has a, has a much wider listenership… So I don’t think it’s farfetched to say that Coates was one of the very first composers to be made by the new medium of broadcasting. And between 1906 and 1957 when he died he had this fifty-year career, that’s five decades, um, in which he was very single-minded in his ambitions to write beautifully-crafted, um, easygoing pieces for orchestra. … He’s one of the most meticulous craftsman of all and, uh, you know, he famously met Maurice Ravel in 1925, they had lunch at the Ritz to swap ideas on orchestration, which is (exhales short laugh) quite something.”
ON COATES’S FANTASY PIECES:
“He had a, a small child, Austin, uh, born in 1922, and he was forever haranguing him to set his favorite, uh, bedtime stories to music, so that’s where “The Selfish Giant” [slurred], which is the first, then “The Three Bears” and then in 1930 “Cinderella” originated. And they’re perfect, um, little vehicles, for sort of miniature orchestral tone-poems, and several of them were later turned into ballets and staged.” …
“I think, um, it was the perfect form for a composer who didn’t want to venture into symphonies. You know, just as as the suite is the perfect kind of miniature form of a symphony, so these nursery, uh, these fairy tales were the sort of tone-poems in miniature, ideally suited to Coates’s talent.”
ON COATES’S “THE SELFISH GIANT”
“Um, I think the most significant thing in this piece is the newly-found use of syncopation in the orchestra, and it caused quite a stir in 1925 or wherever [sic] it was written, ‘cause it was the first kind of fusion of, uh, syncopated jazz rhythms… I mean, harmless now when you hear them, but caused sort of semi-scandalous [sic] at the time, and people were writing to the newspaper saying, We must ban jazz, you know, morally disintegrating and all of that… [fades]”
ON COATES’S COMMERCIAL SUCCESS
“There’s a contractual side of Coates’s life, because he was very early on given a, a long-term contract with Chappell’s, the publisher, with whom he remained for most of his life, and that contract stipulated that he had to write one extended work, and three short wor—two short works—and three songs every year. And that’s basically all he did. For fifty years. He never stepped outside the terms of his contract, and I think he had trouble getting down to composition, it was, he was always, I remember his son Austin, whom I knew very well, telling me he was always just happy to be fiddling around with his camera and, and his hobbies and things like that, you know, composing was always something had to sort of apply himself to rather reluctantly.”
ON COATES’S RECORDED MUSIC
“He, as I say, all of these new sort of fo-forms of media, the 78 record and then later the long-playing record… You see that—you see the appearance of each new sort of, uh, (clears throat) form of recording being mirrored in the, in the sort of, the timings of Coates’s piece. So when you get th’—when Decca bring out the, the long-playing FFRR recording process y-you see that the ‘Four Centuries’ Suite ju-just tailored to those kinds of processes and lens(?) So yes, he always had his eye on, on, on how to disseminate his, his music [fades].”
ON COATES’S “VALSE-ROMANCE” AND “LAZY NIGHT”
“We-ll yeah, I mean, you know, they’re so transparently scored, these pieces, no, there’s nev—nothing ever unnecessarily doubled, everything’s carefully calculated, i-it’s like, you know, any of those Rossini or Mozart or Schubert, but one person sort of slightly off-center and it tells, so there’s nowhere to hide, it’s one of these… [fades]”
ON COATES’S “THE ENCHANTED GARDEN” (1938)
“Yup, bigger orchestra, I think it’s his longest single movement, twenty minutes, and, um, I guess he was at the peak of his powers, you know, he was a, he was re(?) master of the orchestra by, by this stage, so for he, for him, he wanted the use of the more exotic instruments, such as the bass clarinet…cor anglais…which don’t really appear in many of his other pieces because he was a, you know, he used to write for the, the salon orchestras of the day and the seaside orchestras and light orchestras… Again, rise in gramophone records, you know, all those, uh, freelance orchestras which could be assembled at a minute’s notice to, to make records, he did a lot of that. …
“Household name by 1933 with the, with the ‘London’ Suite, twenty thousand letters to the BBC, and they had to have a, a constable standing outside the door of their flat to, uh, to, ‘cause there were so many, sort of, autograph hunters and what-have-you. … They were always moving house, you know. His wife used go to the estate agents, like most people go to the supermarket, and she was always picking out… [fades] Poor old Eric was always being dragged from, from one place to th’— She was always dreaming up scenarios for Mrs Coates, and I think she wrote the scenario for this ballet. Several of his other sort of, uh, ballets were, were, were to stories by his beloved wife, and, uh, they made very effective stage pieces as you can hear, ‘cause he, he had a sort of, eh, eh, good dramatic instinct, you know, lots of colorful, eh, fantasy episodes in a piece like this.”
ON COATES AND THE MUSICAL THEATER
“He dabbled with theater, he wrote three musicals which were never, uh, completed, although with all the songs are written [sic], but the books weren’t…um…finished. And, uh, you know, one wonders why he never quite sort of, um, made his name in the theater, ‘cause he certainly had the melodic gifts, you know, to rival Ivor Novello and Noel Coward and Vivian Ellis and all those people of the, of the period. But his greatest need, musically, was the, was the, was the sound of the, the orchestra, yeah, yeah, that’s why he put pen to paper, and the idea of writing a musical and someone else doing the orchestration, that never quite fired his imagination enough, I don’t think.”
ON ERIC COATES’S MASTERPIECE
“…No, it’s ‘The Four Centuries’ Suite, that’s where he’s at his most dazzling, which you can hear on Volume IV…(pause, audience laughs)…whenever that may be.”
AGAIN, ON COATES’S COMMERCIAL SUCCESS
“…The highest composer [sic] in England I think, making three hundred quid a week in the 1930s, not bad.” …
“He was, he was a viola player, and, ah, he was principal viola of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and he was, ah, longing to give up the viola ‘cause he said it was too heavy and (audience laughs), and, and he had this great big, you know, seventeen-inch viola, and he said it used to give him arm ache, and he’s longing to give it up, and so he decided to do that. Well, he didn’t decide that, he got the sack, for sending too many deputies. To rehearsals. (audience laughs) Henry Wood gave him the sack. And so his hand was forced and he became a composer, a full-timer [sic] of necessity. Ah, but I think it was this piece that sort of consolidated his position.”
ON COATES’S “SUMMER DAYS” SUITE
“I think, you know, Coates, eh, really never wanted reality to, sort of, um, come into-to his musical world, they were always il-lu-sory picture postcard pieces d-designed to sort of transport the listener. Um, even i-in his London suites, you know, he picks the posh bits. There are no tenements (audience laughs) glimpsed in any of his London music. And I think, ahoh, this is the closest I feel to a sort of tinge of regret. Melancholy in the last movement. It has, it has, it has a faint aura of sadness, I-I’d say.”
John recorded Eric Coates’s entire London Everyday suite back in January and Chandos just released the album. “Knightsbridge”, the last movement, is well-known as the signature tune for BBC Radio’s In Town Tonight. It’s a sprightly march with a grandness that doesn’t sound actually deserved, which is why I can’t get it out of my head.
Here it is performed by the BBC Symphony for the program British Light Music at the 2900-seat Royal Festival Hall in London, 2011, with 39-year-old John conducting.
From 4barsrest.com, an online publication that serves brass instrumentalists: The critically acclaimed big band and orchestral conductor (that’s my lad!) has accepted the role of Honorary President of the Yorkshire band Black Dyke. Chairman of the Board of Black Dyke Band Trustees, Trevor Caffull stated, “We are delighted that John Wilson has agreed to be our Honorary President and very excited with some of the initial thoughts shared regarding potential collaborations. In his early life, John was steeped in brass band culture. He has clearly lost none of his enthusiasm for the genre and we are very optimistic that this will evolve into a mutually rewarding association.”
About Fanfares: I fell in love with John the spring of 2018. The summer of 2018 was The Bernstein Summer. The summer my beloved John tried to oedipally murder Leonard Bernstein before an arena of cheering thousands at the Royal Albert; the summer I finally heard on YT his Proms Oklahoma! from 2017 with Mister Grumble and having to end up apologizing to my Oklahoman husband the rest of the year; but more importantly, this was the summer I decided to try to make as comprehensive a chronology as I could of John’s musical paths, as evidenced by the dates of live performances whether videoed or not, radio broadcasts, album recordings and so forth. In this way I hoped to be able to follow him on those various paths, perhaps to be rewarded, even if only for a moment, with hearing music as he hears it, or perceiving if only for a moment what he feels when he conducts. So when I bought Fanfares, it was not a completely whimsical purchase. When I read later on that, a few months after he recorded with Onyx at St Jude’s, John went on to tame the raucous festival orchestra of Circus Roncalli at their New Year’s show in Berlin, I knew I was on the right track.
So this is what I garner from John’s travels in brass. His Newcastle-Gateshead working-class background stands him in good stead in this field; as it’s in the north of England, among the factory and mine workers who were also dedicated amateur instrumentalists, that the uniquely British form of brass ensemble was not simply allowed to grow and thrive, but achieve such a high excellence of sound and musicality that concert composers were, and continue to be, attracted to write works for it, for example this ravishing masterwork by Scottish-born composer Peter Graham for the 165-year-old, 28-piece Black Dyke Band of Yorkshire.*
It was in and around groups like these, as a percussionist, as well as in amateur musical pit orchestras, as a conductor, where my beloved John Wilson as a teenager got his start, and where he first developed his “ear”.
Which brings us back to Fanfares played by the London-based Onyx Brass, or to be more accurate, the Onyx Brass 5 plus 6 friends. In this trailer @00:24, John gleefully declares his pleasure at hearing such a rich clear loud sound (“shatteringly loud” he laughs, “a thrilling sound”) from such a relatively small chamber group. A little brass does go a long way.
The album is a tribute to the impressive range of John’s genuine knowledge of the repertoire. The selections are grouped under each of the 15 featured composers, themselves grouped very loosely by era. If one listens seriously and openly to the entire record—there are 58 cuts—even an absolute neophyte to the field of British brass might be able to discern qualities in the music itself that distinguish traditional British music in general: for instance those certain intervals I talked about in “The Pure Joy of St Trinian’s and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness by Malcolm Arnold” that suggest stability, cohesiveness, and “rightness”. This is the music of pageantry.
John begins the collection with famed Master of the Queen’s Music, Arthur Bliss, near the top, and the Onyx Brass does his “God Save the Queen” with the reverence and swelling pride it deserves. Tuneful Arnold, who played first trumpet in the BBCSO, is well-represented here, as are Albert Ketelbey, Arnold Bax, Frederic Curzon, Eric Coates, etc etc. But the real gems come from Imogen Holst (Gustav’s daughter, 1907-1984) with her “Leiston” Suite (1967); Elisabeth Lutyens with her typically odd but compelling Fanfare for a Festival (1975); Michael Tippett with the “Wolf Trap” Fanfare (1980); and also Joseph Horovitz, my beloved John’s composition teacher at the Royal College of Music, with his “Graduation” Fanfare No 2”, which debuted in 2013 at the graduation ceremony of the Royal College.
Each of these later pieces may stretch the definition of what a fanfare actually is, but all of them contribute a superior musicality to the brass repertoire. John’s championing of these works—particularly Holst’s suite, which deserves to be included in general concert programs—shows me not only where his heart is, but also his head. And John Wilson’s head is something that’s been on my mind for the last four years.
*A brief look at the score excerpt of Graham’s “Metropolis 1927” will give you an idea of how large and fully-complemented a British brass band can be.
John mi vida— It may be likely that we’ll actually meet up sometime or another, since I give not only to the Academy but to the College as well (although I’m thinking of becoming a Friend of the College this year because one, Pru and Emma at the main office have been very kind, and two, I’d like to visit the RCM’s brand-new museum), and so perhaps my few dollars might wangle me an invitation to one of those “Meet the Fellows” wine-and-cheese thingies you as a Fellow are encouraged to attend. If that happens, how about coming over and saying hi to me? I won’t bite. I forgave you for Oklahoma! a while ago.
John: I think with Light Music generally one of its primary requirements is to ‘land in the listener’s lap’. It has to have a direct route to the listener’s emotions. You mention the Haydn Wood London Landmark Suite… In the 1930s from about 1933 onward, with Eric Coates’s London Suite, there was a sudden vogue for London—it was an illusory London, but it was very useful for these composers who wanted to express these sort of picture-postcard scenarios in music… Eric Coates did that very effectively with his London Suite in 1933. Now, why did people suddenly start copying Coates? It’s because it was enormously successful… It sold 400,000 copies of the 78 [record] and suddenly of course dollar signs started flashing in front of the publishers’ eyes.
And these three that we’re going to hear tonight are incredibly different individually. What should the listeners be expecting to hear?
John: The tunes are good. Particularly the last movement, “The Horse Guards—Whitehall” which was used as a signature tune for a long-running radio show [Down Your Way, 1946-92]… That’s obviously got a jaunty, horsey aspect to it… The first, “Nelson’s Column”, has a sort of quality nautical aspect to it… And the middle movement, “Tower Hill”, has a sort of thread of tragedy running through it. It’s never profoundly tragic, it’s all a kind of…as I keep saying earlier, a kind of picture postcard, a sort of 1930s-1940s sort of illusory version of what these places represent.
What are the sort of challenges you come across as a conductor when conducted and preparing music like this?
John: You know, there are a time when there was no division between light music and serious music. But with the advent of broadcasting and seaside orchestras there was a new market for composers who specialized in that field… And the challenge as a conductor is that you have to get off the page the immediacy of the music, the directness of the melodies and the rhythms, so I think on common levels of snap, articulation, fervor, all those things to bring these pieces to life… It’s, I think, from a player’s point of view, it’s often more than you might actually think. Part of the secret of this music’s success is that it never outstays its welcome. Which means as a player you have very little time to establish yourself. You’ve got to be in the zone and you’ve got to kind of deliver immediately. I mean, you know, I’ve been doing this stuff here with this orchestra for a lo’ of years, so they’re quite familiar with not only the style but what it is I like, so it’s all very happy music making.
At around the same time of life the oh-so-kissable John Wilson was a wee bairn in Gateshead falling out of his high chair in excitement over the brand-new BBC news theme, I was in my playpen in the living room of the old one-bedroom apartment in South Minneapolis jumping up and down in excitement to the theme of Captain Kangaroo on TV.
The program: “The Devil’s Galop” (Dick Barton Special Agent,Monty Python) / Charles Williams; “Portrait of a Flirt” / Robert Farnon; “The Lion and Albert” (comic verse) / Marriott Edgar; March from “Little Suite” (Dr Finlay’s Casebook) / Trevor Duncan; “Barwick Green” (The Archers) / Arthur Wood; “The Typewriter” (The News Quiz) / Leroy Anderson; “Roses of Picardy” / Haydn Wood; “Calling All Workers” (Music While You Work) / Eric Coates; “By the Sleepy Lagoon” (Desert Island Discs) / Eric Coates; “A Canadian in Mayfair” / Angela Morley; “In a Party Mood” / Jack Strachey; “Sailing By” (The Shipping Forecast) / Ronald Binge; “Charmaine” (Monty Python) / Erno Rapee; “Puffin’ Billy” (Captain Kangaroo!!!) at 47:00 / Edward White; “Birdsongs at Eventide” / Eric Coates; “The Dam Busters” March (from the 1954 film) / Eric Coates. Janis Kelly, soprano. Roy Hudd, host.
I’m still finding it mighty strange that John was born on the same day as my father’s final birthday, in 1972—on the 25th of May, which would make them both Geminis—but somehow it starts to make sense: There’s John of the BBC and Eric Coates and Ralph Vaughan Williams and the tra-la-boomy-boom that makes up English music; and then there’s John of the big-shouldered swaggering sweating bombastic vibrant American tune book. One (when he plays it well) makes me want to cook him a nice lamb stew with pearl onions swimming in the rich gravy; the other (again, when he plays it well, which is almost always) makes me want to—well, I was in The Business, you know, use your imagination.
Low Fell Lad Makes Good. Above: the Arlen-Kohler standard “Get Happy” was written for Ruth Etting but popularized by Judy Garland in the film, Summer Stock (MGM, 1951).
Only don’t be too sure which is which. Like I said, John almost always plays the music of his own country and heritage well, with a deep feeling that’s irresistible; whereas when he works out the great American tunes it turns out more often to be hit-and-miss, with many many many more misses than hits.
But oh! When he does hit!
When bonny John and his orchestra play “Get Happy” or “The Trolley Song” or “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” or the MGM Jubilee Overture—or the absolute best of the lot, “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue“—it’s total heaven, and I’m not the only one to say this. Subtlety is not this lad’s forte when it comes to the American popular repertoire. But when John goes big, bright, busy and loud when the number actually calls for it, screams out for it, it’s so damn satisfying when he does it and does it brilliantly that I want to—how can I put this?—do something for my darling in gratitude…make him a nice meal…fatten him up a little… (Ess, kind, ess!)
For right now, though, I’ll settle for a natter on a quiet afternoon with you John, rather not in London, maybe when you get up to Gateshead again, mi vida, back to The Angel of the North…
The thing I first noticed first about this disc was the total commitment of the interpretations. A year later, a second volume appeared also devoted to the delightful compositions of Eric Coates. Once again I was struck by the deep understanding and respect show to these often unfamiliar scores, something which isn’t always the cast when this music is performed by orchestras and conductors who just do not seem to understand the idiom.
A little later I learnt that John was preparing a complete edition of the works of Eric Coates, so no wonder he is so completely “inside” this lovely music.
Born in Gateshead in 1972, John Wilson studied composition and conducting at the Royal College of Music, where he graduated in 1995 winning all the main prizes, and also where he was awarded the prestigious Tagore Gold Medal, the highest award attainable by a student at the college.
In 1996 John formed The Sinfonia of Westminster, a group comprised of the pick of the outstanding musicians from leading soloists and chamber groups. But John also enjoys a parallel career conducting The John Wilson Orchestra, which is comprised of young musicians devoted to keeping alive the music of The Great American Songbook, including arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Robert Farnon, Paul Weston and Conrad Salinger. The orchestra has given concerts in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall to great acclaim. He also appears regularly at Pizza in the Park and is the youngest conductor to broadcast on Radio 2’s long running Friday Night Is Music Night programme. John is also a prolific arranger himself, producing numerous orchestrations for film and television and he was also responsible for arranging all the music for the Hong Kong handover celebrations. The first two CDs to appear featuring The John Wilson Orchestra come from two different labels. The first one from Velvetone comprises 19 titles recorded at the CTS Studios in Wembley in 1998. Sarah Moule is the sensitive vocalist on eight tracks including “I Concentrate on You” and “Words Can’t Describe”, a little-known song once recorded by Sarah Vaughan. The rest is all orchestral, my favourites being “Skyliner” and “Cherokee”, both arranged by Neil Richardson, and Bob Farnon’s superb reworking of David Raksin’s classic “Laura”, which for me is worth the price of the disc alone!
John’s most recent CD is a first from Michael Dutton’s Vocalion Digital label. Previously this label has concentrated on re-issues of classic dance band and jazz recordings. They are now embarking on a series of original recordings made specially for the label, and John’s CD Orchestral Jazz is included in the first release. Using 24 strings, 4 winds, 5 rhythm and piano, this disc sounds superb and no wonder, featuring as it does on Richard Rodney Bennett playing piano on 4 tracks and providing arrangements for 8 tracks including “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, “Lush Life” and “Melancholy Baby”.
The remaining arrangements are shared between John himself and Neil Richardson.
Listen out for Ian Moffat’s superb trombone, also Enrico Tomasso on trumpet and Luke Annesley doubling on sax and clarinet. This issue should be snapped up by all who enjoy the very best in orchestral jazz. If you enjoy Nelson Riddle’s recordings then you should love this CD.
One wonders what the future has in store for John Wilson. Personally I would welcome a disc devoted to the music of Robert Farnon, and what about a CD of the great arrangements of the unsung hero of MGM musicals, Conrad Salinger. But whatever, the name John Wilson will ensure that the great music of the twentieth century will be kept alive, played and presented superbly by a young master interpreter.