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Insipid reception for music genius ; Sixty years ago Hucknall-born composer Eric Coates published his autobiography Suite In Four Movements. Bygones...

October 14, 2013


Insipid reception for music genius ; Sixty years ago Hucknall-born composer Eric Coates published his autobiography Suite In Four Movements. Bygones remembers a proud son of Notts

BRITAIN has been whistling Eric Coates melodies for 70 years, and one of his two most famous pieces is heard on BBC Radio 4 at least twice a week.

Coates was born in Duke Street, Hucknall in 1886. His father was a doctor and amateur photographer and both his parents were music lovers.

Their home, called Tenter Hill, became a centre of music-making in the mining town.

The youngster began his musical education playing the violin before graduating to viola.

In 1906 Coates gained a place at the Royal Academy of Music where his teachers included the greatest of all British players of the instrument, Lionel Tertis.

For several years Coates led the viola section in Proms founder Sir Henry Wood's Queen's Hall Orchestra.

As a composer, his first important piece was Four Old English Songs.

His big break came when the BBC radio programme In Town Tonight used his Knightsbridge March as its signature tune. Broadcasting House received thousands of letters requesting the name of the tune and the composer.

Another important BBC success was the Music While You Work theme.

Coates was known as King of Light Music, and while this made him popular in the years before, during and immediately after the Second World War, his reputation subsequently suffered at the hands of those who believed that Light was a synonym for inconsequential.

Coates expert Duncan Lloyd, Director of Music at the Minster School in Southwell, said: Even Tertis wondered.

Coates wrote a viola rhapsody for him, but it wasn't played a second time. It was as if he felt he did not want to be associated with what his contemporaries might regard as second-rate.

When I wanted to get the music for By the Sleepy Lagoon I found it was out of print. I could not even find it in Hucknall Library, which has a collection of his work. In the end I had to go to the BBC for the music. In fact, Coates's pieces are very well constructed.

Elgar had the highest regard for his work, and had an order for his works whenever they were published.

Actually Elgar wrote light music, too. His pieces like Salut d'Amour and Chanson de Matin get played frequently, but not Coates's work. Lloyd argues that the music is often inventive and witty. The London Again Suite has three movements; Oxford Street, Langham Place and Mayfair. Langham Place was the home of the BBC, and one theme embraces the notes B flat, B flat, C. Coates never lost touch with his roots and frequently returned to Hucknall and Nottingham to support musical activity. In July 1946 he attended the British Legion's silver jubilee garden party in Hucknall and was overwhelmed by the numbers of local people who turned out to see him.

He was introduced that day by legion branch chaplain and vicar of Hucknall the Rev K G Thompson who remembered landing in Malta during the Second World War and sheltering in a bunker as the Germans launched one of their frequent air raids.

On a wireless set they managed to pick up a signal and heard an orchestra playing a Coates suite.

It moved a sailor to comment: That's what I call a piece of old England! In his autobiography Coates recalled many trips to Southwell, with his father, laden with photographic equipment to shoot studies of the Minster.

And, despite living in London for most of his life, he said Southwell was always on his visiting list when he came home to Notts.

Coates is best known for his contribution to the film score for 1954's production of The Dam Busters, although he didn't write the instantly recognisable theme for the picture.

The composer''s son, Austin Coates, recounted in a radio interview for the BBC that the march had in fact been completed a few days before he was contacted by the producers. The composer had apparently been carrying out an exercise in composing a march in Elgarian form, which is the same structure as the famous Pomp and Circumstance Marches.

Coates had a profound dislike of writing film music and turned down numerous requests. When the producers told him that this was 'a film of national importance he was still reluctant but, on hearing more about the film, came to the conclusion that the piece he had just completed might just be the very thing.

Eric Coates died in Chichester in 1957 aged 71, having suffered a stroke and was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium.

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