Nimbus -- on its new companion label Nimbus Alliance -- has brought out something as grandly appreciated as it was totally unexpected, under the heading “The Definitive Eric Coates,” a set of seven CDs (NI 6231) comprising all the recordings Coates made of his own music, in a generous and resourceful presentation that fully justifies the adjective affixed to it.
Eric Coates (1886-1957), whose name used to be much more familiar to American listeners than it is today, was an outstanding composer of a very distinctive kind of what may be conveniently classified as “light concert music,” the sort of thing that has rather disappeared from our concert life, as subscription programs have taken a more exclusively serious turn and the “pop concert” has taken a similarly counterproductive one in the opposite direction. His podium activity was more or less limited to authoritative performances and recordings of his own distinctive, well-crafted works, and Nimbus has given us all of those he is known to have made, together with an assortment, on the final disc, of “Contemporary Recordings by Other Conductors.” This is something that will be gratefully welcomed by many old-time collectors, and could be a source of delightful discoveries for later generations of listeners.
Coates, a native of Nottinghamshire, completed his musical training in London and began his career there as a violist, but in 1919 he gave up the viola in favor of full-time attention to composing. He understood the orchestral idiom as an insider, having performed in orchestras under Sir Henry Wood (who made him principal viola in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and gave the premiere of one of his compositions) and Sir Thomas Beecham, and found his distinctive style in creating music that was light in character yet by no means lacking in substance. For the most part he found inspiration for his frankly descriptive or evocative pieces in city life, country scenes, fairy tales and legends, and clear-eyed yet heartfelt patriotic pride. Pretentiousness in any form was simply not his style, and realistic self-awareness combined with unfailing taste and sense of proportion to keep him from attempting the grand epic or anything resembling monumentalism or bluster. He preferred professionalism and directness. His music is a true reflection of his own personality and his sound musicianship, and even now it identifies itself instantly and unmistakably as his and no one else’s.
While there is an essential warmth of heart in Coates’s works that makes it fitting to compare them with those of the Viennese Strausses, his music is without exception a clear, unveiled representation of his own time, his own setting, and his own personality. Photographs of him suggest an urbane, debonair figure, and these qualities are present in his compositions in a way that balances ideally, rather than to any degree conflicting with, that unfeigned warmheartedness. His phantasy (that’s the spelling he preferred) The Three Bears was composed at the request of his young son, and the lively motto tune fits “Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” -- just as the more expansive phantasy Cinderella is graced with a motif that clearly fits the heroine’s name, as well as a phantastic march episode, and a waltz that’s almost as fetching. (That march tune appears to have been subsequently adapted and expanded as Oxford Street, the march that opens the suite London Again, the follow-up to the celebrated London Suite whose concluding movement is the famous march Knightsbridge.)
Knightsbridge and the postwar march The Dam Busters are the best-known of Coates’s numerous marches, and indeed rank among the finest marches composed in the 20th century. Apart from the march movements in his various suites Coates composed free-standing ones with such titles as London Bridge, Calling All Workers, London Calling, Television March, The Eighth Army, and Salute the Soldier (the last two with fanfares composed specifically to precede them). Some, as their titles indicate, were created as morale-boosters during World War II; some are simply expressions of good-hearted bonhomie; all show a complete mastery of this durable form, by a composer who managed to define it on his own terms.
Coates did not compose quite as many waltzes as he did marches, but he achieved considerable distinction in this form as well. There are waltzes in his ballet scores and in his concert suites, and, again, some that are self-standing. All are eminently danceable, and it happens that Coates, like Mozart before him, was a man who loved to dance. He and his wife enjoyed dancing to the music of London’s celebrated dance bands -- several of whose leaders returned the favor by taking up his compositions, and sometimes inviting him to conduct them. Moreover, like the Viennese Waltz King himself, who was a friend of Brahms and respected by Wagner, Coates was admired by some of the greatest of his “serious” musical contemporaries: Sir Edward Elgar not only complimented him on his compositions, but left a standing order with EMI for delivery of every recording Coates made of his own music, as soon as it became available.
“Definitive,” as already noted, is a good label for this set. The excellent notes, by Coates’s biographer Michael Payne, mention that, “Along with the likes of Edward Elgar, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Albert Ketèlbey, Eric Coates was one of the first composers to have left a significant recorded legacy. His ascent to popularity as a composer ran concurrently with the surge of interest in the gramophone and the enormous boost it received following the adoption of electrical recording in 1925.” Apart from the obvious difference in genre, Coates is set apart from the heavyweights mentioned here, in that (a) his music has had far less attention, both live and in recordings, since his death, and (b), in conspicuous contradistinction to recordings of Strauss, Stravinsky, et al., by the greatest conductors active in their own time and since, hardly any subsequent conductor of Coates’s music achieved a conviction or authority that came anywhere near the composer’s own.
Most of Coates’s recordings were made on one or another of EMI’s labels -- mainly English Columbia and His Master’s Voice, two or three with Parlophone -- though there were some for Decca and for Pye. The orchestras were chiefly the London Philharmonic and secondarily the London Symphony Orchestra, both of which appeared pseudonymously for some time as simply “Symphony Orchestra” or “Concert Orchestra.” He recorded four of his suites with the New Symphony Orchestra for Decca. Although his last recordings were made as late as August 1957, none seems to have been made in stereo.
All the recordings on the final disc were made without Coates’s participation but during his lifetime, and nearly all of them are titles Coates himself never recorded. Exceptions are the sung version of Bird Songs at Eventide (Coates’s own recording of which is without the sung text); the suite Joyous Youth (which Coates did record, but before the electrical process replaced the old acoustical horn); the phantasy The Selfish Giant (Coates’s own recording of which was with Jack Hylton’s dance band), and a band recording of the march The Dam Busters (which is superior to Coates’s contemporaneous orchestral recording, and was far more significant in establishing the work’s position among his compositions).
Coates’s waltzes are quite different from those of the Strauss family: they are shorter, less elaborate, and, one might say, simply reflect their own time and place. He labeled them all with the French term, valse, and in a stylistic sense they might be regarded as being more French than Viennese -- though what one really notices is that they are still more in the individual style of Eric Coates. It is a valse that represents the 19th century in his suite The Four Centuries. Another, Mayfair, is the concluding movement of the suite London Again. Among the freestanding ones are such titles as Dancing Nights and Footlights, and there is a waltz episode in Cinderella. The most celebrated of his waltzes (though really by no means the best) is the one he designated a “valse serenade” when he composed it, in 1930, under the title By the Sleepy Lagoon.
Although the music definitely fits the exotic image conjured up in that title, Coates’s actual inspiration was the view from his seaside cottage at Selsey, in West Sussex. That spot now is marked by a plaque identifying it as the inspiration for the piece, but By the Sleepy Lagoon did not attract much attention in its first ten years, even though Coates recorded it in 1935. It was early in 1940 that Jack Lawrence, an American writer of texts for popular songs, happened to see the score of the piano arrangement, and had an inspiration of his own, which was to change the status of the piece dramatically
When Lawrence took his text to the New York office of Coates’s British publisher, he was dismissed with the remark that it was unauthorized and the composer would only be displeased, if not downright offended. Lawrence was stubborn enough, however, to find Coates’s personal address and send his proposed text to him -- and the composer was absolutely delighted with it. “You have set the words to my music so cleverly,” he wrote to Lawrence, “that one would never suspect that the music had been written first!” At his suggestion, the song version was promptly published, listing himself and Jack Lawrence as its collaborative creators: its success was instantaneous, enormous, and remarkably enduring.
Harry James and his band were the first to record Sleepy Lagoon (as the song version was titled), to be followed quickly by Xavier Cugat, Dinah Shore, Fred Waring, Glenn Miller, David Rose, and many others. Virtually every pop singer and bandleader performed it, not only in the US but everywhere. In 1942 the Harry James recording was on the Billboard list of best-selling records for 18 weeks, and in first place for part of that time. In the same year, the original work, with the sound of seagulls added, became the theme music for the long-running (but then brand-new) BBC Radio program Desert Island Discs. A memorable recording by the Platters was issued in 1960, and as recently as last year a new arrangement of the original piece became the theme music for the “Aquanura,” the fountain spectacle of the Dutch theme park Efteling.
Sleepy Lagoon was not the first instance of Coates’s publisher’s making a poor judgment, or of the work involved becoming the signature tune for a new and successful BBC Radio show. In large part, Michael Payne's altogether fascinating notes show recording sessions as significant markers in an absorbing mini-biography, and none matched the importance of the first recording of the London Suite (a set of three movements representing specific districts of the city and given the subtitle “London Every Day”). When Coates composed that work, in 1932, his publisher only heaped criticism on it, and particularly on its concluding march, advising that putting it in print would be an unjustifiable expense. Coates pitched the new suite to Arthur Brooks, the recording manager for EMI’s Columbia label, but when Mr. Brooks heard the broadcast premiere he told Coates flat out that he didn’t care for the suite, either. Finally, though, since Coates had a recording session scheduled for March 1933, Brooks agreed to allow him to record the London Suite if the works already scheduled left time for it (offering this gesture only because he was confident there would not be time).
Even then, however, the publisher had to OK the recording, and still didn’t have much enthusiasm for the music. The suggestion was made that since the middle movement, Westminster, was the most substantial part of the work (by what earthly form of judgment?), both the concluding march and the opening tarantelle Covent Garden would be abridged, and only Westminster be recorded uncut, so the recording would fit on a single 12" 78rpm disc. At the actual session, on March 7, 1933, Coates had the orchestra so well in hand that they did finish the scheduled material early, leaving just enough time to record the suite -- but, in defiance of the publisher’s ruling, with the first two movements mercilessly cut, and the Knightsbridge March taken down in full. Even then, there were snags, and it was only with the enthusiastic agreement of the musicians that the session went into a very short unpaid overtime to complete the recording -- which proved to be a great deal more than merely successful.
Just after that recording was issued, in the fall of the same year, the BBC introduced a new show made up of interviews and comments of entertainers and other popular figures, called In Town Tonight. On November 18, the day of the initial program, it was noticed with some alarm that no one involved with the new program had selected music that would introduce and identify it. A frantic search for recordings of music with the word London in the title led to Coates’s new disc of his London Suite, and the Knightsbridge March was put on the air just in time. It proved to be the most striking feature of the program, provoking more than 20,000 inquiries about what it was and whether a recording was available. In short order, that 78 became the best-selling item ever issued on the Columbia label; both the record company and the publisher were hard put to keep up with demand, and Coates’s reputation was firmly established. From that point on, there would be no more questions about whether a work of his was fit to be published or recorded, but only about how quickly he could turn out more bestsellers.
Both the Knightsbridge March and By the Sleepy Lagoon were followed up by at least one more Coates work chosen by the BBC as signature tune for a popular radio program. The march Calling All Workers, composed in 1940, was promptly pressed into wartime service as theme music for Music While You Work, a show broadcast as frequently as three times a day during World War II. (It might be noted also that Halcyon Days, the opening movement of Coates’s suite The Three Elizabeths, served as theme music for the television series The Forsyte Saga.) In any event, as events faded into history, and musical tastes changed over time, the magic of Knightsbridge has not faded. If any music Coates left us may be regarded as “timeless,” this is surely it. The piece has everything: fine tunes, a clear personality of its own, and, by no means incidentally, some of the most imaginative scoring to go into any example of its genre. In terms of sheer musical inventiveness, this march shows Coates at a level of inventiveness which he never surpassed.
First of all, there is that sense of occasion invoked by the portentous opening gesture. Following the brief introduction of both of the contrasting themes, the first one establishes an air of jaunty vitality and then fanfares make way for a more sinuous statement of the second theme, which serves as “trio” for the piece. Neither of these infectious tunes is laden with any ceremonial gesture: both are characterized by the confidence and spontaneity that mark all of Coates’s best inventions. In this instance, the first theme might be said to reflect the vigor of the city’s everyday life, while the second, on a somewhat more personal level, might suggest something like the title of the middle movement of Coates’s suite The Three Men, which he called The Man About Town -- but both themes take on unimagined expansions of their original character before the piece is over, and there is a marvelous surprise (even after countless hearings) in the middle of the piece.
Following a reprise of the first theme there are more elaborate fanfares than before, leading to a single well-placed thwack on the bass drum, and then one of the most remarkable episodes in any of Coates’s works: when the trio comes round for the second time it is with an emphatic ostinato punctuation from the brass, bringing an effect of crisp syncopation against the fluid statement of the second theme. To some listeners, this unexpected effect calls up the image of a banjo, while to others it suggests a hurdy-gurdy or barrel organ. Regardless of any suggested imagery, or the absence thereof, this is a masterstroke -- but one that has been astoundingly overlooked by a great many conductors and recording producers.
The point of this imaginative stroke is that both elements have to be heard: neither the brass nor the rest of the orchestra can be permitted to overwhelm the other. Coates himself, in that edge-of-their-seats, now-or-never premiere recording in 1933, showed exactly how he wanted this to go, but even he, in his four subsequent recordings of the piece (two more as part of the London Suite on LP and without cuts in the first two movements), and two more on its own (but one of these with a substantial cut), the effect is rather muffled, and in the last three the bass drum thwack is either omitted or simply inaudible. Among recordings of the great march by other conductors -- even Morton Gould and Frederick Fennell, both of whom would have been expected to understand what Coates intended -- the brass is shoved way, way to the back and the effect is lost.
Malcolm Nabarro, conducting his East of England Orchestra in the entire London Suite and other Coates works on an ASV CD issued in 1991 (with the backing of Coates’s devoted son Austin and sympathetic production under Michael Woolcock), made a noble effort, but the one fully realized account -- and, considering both performance and sound quality, the most completely satisfying recording ever made of the piece -- came out a couple of decades earlier, also as part of the entire London Suite: the conductor was James Walker, the orchestra was the Royal Philharmonic, and the ideally focused, wide-open recording was made for Reader’s Digest, as part of a collection of miscellaneous works involving various conductors, under the heading “Light Classical Gold.”
James Walker is remembered primarily as a recording producer -- he is credited with many of the great Ansermet recordings of the 1950s and ‘60s, and many of Decca’s other showpieces -- and the two sectors of his career must have equipped him exceptionally well for understanding both what the composer intended and how to realize those expectations in a recording. It is simply not possible to overpraise what he achieved on Coates’s behalf in his account of the London Suite, and it is pointless to compare it with any recording that preceded or followed it. It may be had as a download from Amazon.com for only $2.67 (89 cents for each of the suite’s three movements), and I cannot think of a better bargain in the entire realm of recorded music.
But Coates’s own recording remains important and enjoyable in its own right, not only because of its importance in establishing his status as a composer, but for the enduring pleasure it continues to provide in that celebrated premiere version. Understandably enough, Coates made a greater number of recordings of the Knightsbridge March, either by itself or as the finale of the London Suite, than any of his other works, and all of them are included in the Nimbus set, but none is a match for the first one.
The Dam Busters, the one march that might be regarded as being in the same class as Knightsbridge, was recorded only once by Coates himself -- in 1955, when the piece was new. It is definitely not one of his better recordings, as it was cut awkwardly to fit on a 10” 78 for Pye-Nixa, a label barely represented in his discography, and it was not issued in the US. It is in the Nimbus set, but so is another recording of the piece, the one made for EMI in the same year by the Central Band of the Royal Air Force, conducted by Wing Commander A.E. Sims. It too was cut, but more judiciously, and it was enormously popular: its sales simply overwhelmed those of Coates’s own recording. It appears at the very end of the Nimbus set, as the last track on the disc made up of recordings by Coates’s contemporaries -- such conductors as Joseph Lewis, Charles Williams, Clarence Raybould, Sidney Torch and Robert Farnon -- and some chamber music ensembles.
When it comes to recordings of The Dam Busters, the piece belongs, perhaps in perpetuity, to Sir Adrian Boult, who recorded several of Coates’s works. He recorded this one at least three times, and chose it for his own 80th-birthday concert. His 1968 recording of it, with the London Philharmonic for American Columbia, is his best; it is not included here, as all the recordings that are were made during Coates’s own lifetime (a few going back to pre-electrical days), but it circulated fairly recently as part of a budget-priced collection of Great Marches on Sony SBK 63052, and a 1973 remake, again with the LPO and nearly as persuasive, is included in Boult’s Coates collection on Lyrita SRCD.246. Boult understood, as too few of today’s musicians do, but which the great ones of the past did, that “light music” simply cannot be sight-read. It is specifically because it is less substantial than a Beethoven symphony that it must be at least as meticulously prepared. Ask an actor or a stage director, and you will be assured that comedy requires a good deal more preparation and attention to detail than straight drama: it’s rather the same with “light music.”
The temptation to ramble in discussing this material is virtually irresistible, but sooner or later it becomes necessary to get back to the issue at hand, and in this case to give an enthusiastic recommendation to “The Definitive Eric Coates.” Nimbus has issued the seven CDs in two multi-disc jewel cases: one contains three CDs and Michael Payne’s 25-page detailed biographical essay, already mentioned, which was the source of much of the information given here. There is a great deal of interesting, sometimes really fascinating detail packed into those pages, and not a single phrase that might be dismissed as superfluous. A separate booklet gives the track lists for the seven discs, with fastidious discographical details for each item and a note by Alan Bunting, who compiled, restored and remastered the recordings, explaining his approach in laying out the respective CDs.
By no means incidentally, his transfers strike me as being at least the equals of any other restorations of this material I’ve heard. Coates’s early recording of his London and London Again suites, and of Cinderella and the rest of his works, were by no means “sonic showpieces,” even for their time, but they were clear enough to register that marvelous episode in Knightsbridge, and to enable all the composer’s similar subtleties and grand gestures to register their full effect. Over the years since the appearance of the CD, virtually all of Coates’s own recordings have been revived in large or small assortments, but Nimbus’s new collection is the first truly complete one -- as well as the most scrupulously and delightfully annotated one -- and that is quite a substantial difference.
Now, if only someone would give us new recordings of Cinderella and London Again to match what James Walker achieved for the London Suite . . .
. . . Richard Freed