Jazz stars: Eric Coates
In “The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians”, music critic Geoffrey Self highlights the main characteristics of Coates' music such as "strong melody, rapid rhythm, brilliant counterpoint and colourful orchestration". In today's column "Jazz Stars" - a story about the life of this prominent musician and a new selection of his compositions.
Eric Francis Harrison Coates (27 August 1886 - 21 December 1957) was an English composer of light music, early in his musical career, a leading violist. Eric Coates was born in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. He was the youngest of five children of the local doctor. It was a musical household. Dr. Coates was an amateur flautist and singer and his wife was a fine pianist. The boy’s love of music became apparent at an early age. After hearing music on a gramophone he began composing his own tunes, and by the time he was seven years old he was studying the violin and arranging music. When he was 12, he began being taught music in Nottingham. He progressed well and was soon receiving lessons in harmony from the respected teacher, Dr. Ralph Horner, and playing the viola in local orchestras.
His parents had intended Eric to pursue a career in banking, but in 1906, reluctantly allowed him to take up a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Here his talents were moulded by Lionel Tertis, an outstanding exponent of the viola. He also came under the influence of the grand old man of Scottish orchestral music, Sir Alexander Mackenzie. In fact, so confident was Mackenzie in the young man’s future that he said: "Ye’ll start as a viola player, but ye’ll end up a composer!"
While still a student, Coates toured South Africa as a viola player in the Hambourg String Quartet. He also gained tremendous practical experience through the many evenings he spent playing in London theatres.
Eric Coates had to fight against poor health: the weak chest he had suffered as a child and neuritis in his left arm which was aggravated by his viola playing. He longed for the day when he could give up performing for good and concentrate on composing and arranging.
Highly recommended by the Royal Academy, in 1910 at the age of just 23, Coates obtained a position as sub-principal, then principal, of the viola section of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra. In those days The Queen’s Hall was the equivalent, in terms of standing, to the modern Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. Its conductor was also a solid institution of London musical life: the great Sir Henry Wood.
In 1919, Eric Coates finally gave up playing, although he often conducted his own works. In 1920, his suite, Summer Days (with its well-loved last movement, At the Dance) received its first performance, which did much to enhance his reputation. Two years later, the lively overture The Merrymakers arrived on the concert scene. Coates wrote The Three Bears fantasy in 1926 for the fourth birthday of his only child, Austin.
Coates' style has evolved with changes in musical tastes, and his later work includes elements borrowed from jazz and dance band music. His work consists almost entirely of orchestral music and songs. With the exception of one unsuccessful short ballet, he never wrote for the theater and only occasionally for films.
His orchestral works fall mainly into categories: suites, fantasias, marches and waltzes, plus a separate overture and other short orchestral works. Of the thirteen suites, the most frequently performed were the London Suite (1932), London Again (1936) and the later work The Three Elizabeths (1944).
Between the First and Second World Wars Coates was in demand as a conductor, performing in London and in seaside resorts such as Bournemouth, Scarborough and Hastings. Beginning in 1923, he recorded his music at Columbia Studios. The records sold very well. Coates went from being just a well-known author to a national celebrity when the BBC chose his march 'Knightsbridge' as the theme music for their new and hugely popular radio programme, In Town Tonight. The programme was broadcast from 1933 to 1960.
In 1940, Phyllis asked her husband to compose a march to which she and her fellow workers volunteers could operate their sewing machines as they made hospital supplies for the Red Cross. The result was Calling All Workers which the BBC chose as the signature tune to their radio programme, "Music While You Work". This stirring march was played thousands of times during the war years. His autobiography “Suite in Four Movements” was published in 1953. One of Coates' last works was “The Dam Busters” – March which brought the author unprecedented success. It is believed that Coates originally conceived it as a spectacular concert piece unrelated to specific events.
The march got its name "The Dam Busters" after the producers of the feature film "The Dam Busters" approached the composer in 1954, to write music for a film about World War II. The march immortalized on film commemorates the daring raid by British pilots on German dams.
Coates' march is played during the closing titles sequence. The film was nominated for an Academy Award (Best Special Effects) and a BAFTA (Best British Film), and Eric Coates became president of the British Light Music Association from 1957. The march has become the unofficial anthem of British airmen and is regularly played at Royal Air Force air parades. This light and unobtrusive tune is part of the British national identity. For the British, it is at once proud, uplifting and exhilarating.
It is also heard in an old war movie, in beer commercials, in shopping malls and even finds its echoes in Pink Floyd's music album "The Wall".
Coates suffered a stroke at his own Sussex home in December 1957 and died at the Royal West Sussex Hospital four days later aged 71. He was cremated at Golders.
*Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians; the work has gone through several editions since the 19th century and is widely used. In recent years it has been made available as an electronic resource called Grove Music Online, which is now an important part of Oxford Music Online.