I was twelve when The Forsyte Saga (all 26 episodes available here) 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-capitalistic 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.
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 CD. “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 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.
I will never understand the English tradition of drag. Now, the American tradition of drag, like future husband Mister Grumble doing his Twiggy impersonation at a gay revue in Dallas back in 1964—THAT’s hot.
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.
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 freakin’ 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, rather not in London, maybe when you get up to Gateshead again, back to The Angel of the North…
Since at least the age of 25 my beloved John Wilson has been associated with the prolific, ubiquitous English composer Eric Coates (1886-1957). In Town Tonight…Desert Island Discs…Music While You Work…The Forsyte Saga…all these BBC programs’ familiar signature tunes were taken from original works by Coates; while his most famous film music score, The Dam Busters, is well-known, and not just to British concertgoers or aficionados of British WWII pictures.
In fact, John just conducted Eric Coates’s short orchestral piece “Dancing Nights” not too long ago. He’s also supposed to be somewhat of a collector of Coates memorabilia and Coates trivia—but I’ll bet my beloved Tyneside lad had no idea that Coates’s son, Austin, was a government expert on Asian Affairs; that, like Mister Grumble, he worked for military intelligence; and that, in the 1960s, he wrote for Oxford University Press the definitive biography of physician, poet, novelist, Freemason, Jack the Ripper suspect (very briefly), and intellectual José Rizal, the martyred hero of my people, and probably the most fascinating, charismatic human being to walk the earth in the last one hundred and fifty years.
Will continue with this posting after I read Coates’s book, which might take some time, as I have to buy it first and it’s not cheap. But I do want to get the British take on Rizal.
After he finishes his JWO At the Movies gig touring the isle with his eponymous orchestra, cracking waaay off-the-beam jokes between numbers about sexual mores in Now, Voyager (Glasgow’s The Herald deems his whippersnapper remarks “camp wit”!) and playing Fred Astaire’s ballet number from The Band Wagon in order to pay tribute to Gene Kelly(!), my bonny gets back to business in Salford performing and recording a program of Eric Coates: “The Merrymakers” Overture; “The Jester at the Wedding” Suite, “Dancing Night”; Ballad for Strings; “I Heard You Singing” from 2 Symphonic Rhapsodies; and for the last number, London Everyday Suite (and you know what that means! It means “Knightsbridge”!! That farkochta earworm I can’t get out of my head!!!) Now for goodness’ sakes John, just play the music and ditch the fatuous pronouncements and the wisecracking. You’re at your best when you’re a musician and not some cheap showman.