Eric Coates very nearly ended up as a provincial bank manager. He studied the violin from the age of six under the tutelage of a pupil of the great Joseph Joachim, friend of Brahms and dedicatee of his Concerto. But music was not a career option for the nice middle-class son of a Nottinghamshire GP. His parents organised a job for him in a local bank. It was only a lucky twist of fate that led to a timely audition at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and thence to his chosen career as a viola player and composer.

There is something of the bank manager about Coates, though more Coutts than NatWest to be sure. He was always turned out immaculately, unable to compose at his desk without being properly dressed – suit, collar and tie – with everything about him ordered and formal. Sobre and dignified in photographs, Coates paid meticulous attention to detail with a neat scoring hand that would have ensured flawless, legible ledgers.

When was Eric Coates born?

Eric Coates was born in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire on 27 August 1886, the youngest son of a doctor. His mother was a pianist. At the age of six he demanded a violin. 20 years later, in 1906, he entered the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) where he studied viola and harmony. He enjoys his student life and indulges in antics with his classmates, such as firing a revolver in the gents toilets.

Taking viola with Lionel Tertis and composition with Frederick Corder, he funded his training by playing in various theatre orchestras (including the London premiere of Lehár’s The Merry Widow). After the RAM, he toured with string quartets and Thomas Beecham’s opera orchestra from 1908 to 1910 before becoming second (and subsequently principal) viola in Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra from 1910 to 1919. He played under the batons of Elgar, Delius, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Schoenberg and Vaughan Williams. Wood premiered Coates’s Miniature Suite (1911) at a Promenade Concert (the waltz movement had to be encored). In 1919 his contract with the orchestra was terminated and he put away his viola for good to concentrate on composition, eventually donating the instrument to a London Philharmonic player who had lost his own in the bombing of Queen’s Hall.

Why is Coates considered 'The Father of British Light Music'?

‘The Father of British Light Music’, ‘The King of British Light Music’: the epithets are freely bandied about when describing Coates. They beg two questions: what do we mean by ‘British Light Music’, and if Coates does wear the crown, why?

Most of the great masters wrote their share of short(ish), tuneful, undemanding music, as a break from their more serious works. To write such, the composer needs a light touch, hence the lack of examples from Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms, Bruckner, Wagner and Mahler. The best light music generally comes from those specialising in the idiom.

Taking their cue from the waltz composers of Vienna, Lumbye, Waldteufel and others, a new breed of composer emerged in Britain: the composer who aspired to write nothing lofty or complicated, no soul-searching symphony or neurotic opera. The decade in which Coates was born saw examples of light music appearing from the pens of Sullivan, Elgar (Salut d’amour, Chanson de matin) and Edward German, soon to be the foremost composer of his kind in England. German had great success with his incidental music for Henry VIII (1892) and Nell Gwyn (1900) and songs like ‘Glorious Devon’ (1905), not to mention his comic opera Merrie England (1902). Coates took his lead from German and his early works are influenced by him, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the older composer. ‘Yes I agree with you,’ he wrote to his sister Rachel in 1925, ‘that Eric Coates is very, very naughty. I heard the other night a Suite of his called From the Countryside – well, well, well! I’ll say no more – simply naughty boy!’

So what makes Coates special?

During the four decades before his death in 1957, he was but one of a school of these like-minded composers, among them Frederic Curzon, Montague Ewing, Percy Fletcher, Archibald Joyce, Albert Ketèlbey, Billy Mayerl, Lionel Monckton, Roger Quilter, Jack Strachey, Leslie Stuart, Charles Williams, Edward White, Arthur Wood and Haydn Wood.

He was a masterly orchestrator, as were many of his peers, but Coates had the benefit of a decade playing in pit bands and, later, in one of the best orchestras in the country. He also mastered the flute, ‘through ardent practice, and I was soon to find out that I could apply my knowledge to certain instruments in the brass section as well,’
as he wrote in his autobiography Suite in Four Movements. ‘It is an absolute necessity to have at least one instrument at your fingertips, preferably a string instrument, before you can hope to write with authority for the orchestra.’ Stanford Robinson, who probably conducted more of Coates’s music than any other, once said you had only to see a chord of C major written for orchestra, and you could tell at a glance it was Eric Coates.

By the late 1920s he had found his own distinctive voice as a composer. It was his good fortune that he became a household name at the same time as the advent of radio and electrical gramophone recordings (almost all the most popular pieces of British Light music fit handily on to one side of a 12- or ten-inch 78 rpm disc, and Coates’s are no exception).

But it is his melodic gift that finally sets him apart. He is simply more memorable – and more consistently so – than his peers. ‘My best inspiration,’ he wrote, ‘is to walk down a London street and a tune soon comes to me. When I can think of nothing I walk down Harley Street and there is a lamp post. Every time I catch sight of it a tune comes to my mind. That lamp
post has been my inspiration for years.’

Which are Coates most famous pieces of music?

It was so much of an inspiration, in fact, that many of his works were used as signature tunes for radio and, latterly, TV and films. For those growing up in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Coates’s music was part of the fabric: ‘Knightsbridge March’ (from the London Suite) introduced In Town Tonight from 1933 to 1960; Calling all Workers heralding Music While You Work was heard four times a day five days a week from 1940 to 1967; ‘Halcyon Days’ from The Three Elizabeths suite meant The Forsyte Saga (BBC TV, 1967); By the Sleepy Lagoon still prefaces Desert Island Discs (with added incongruous BBC seagulls) as it has done since 1942. And those are just four of the better known ones. A Coates march, with its catchy theme and rhythmic vitality, was a sure-fire winner. Perhaps the most played today is The Dambusters, the title music for the 1954 film (the main score is by Leighton Lucas). The composer’s son Austin remembered coming home one day to find his father turning out electric lights all over the place. ‘I asked him why on earth he was doing so. He said, “It’s
this terrible income tax. If I write another Sleepy Lagoon I shall be ruined.” I thought of this when he wrote The Dambusters.’

If success is defined by longevity and earning power, then Coates can claim the crown of British Light music (though the dated works of his near-contemporary Albert Ketèlbey, made him, it is claimed, Britain’s first millionaire composer). But there is more to Coates than his catchy melodies and the popularity of the best known (when the ‘Knightsbridge March’ was first broadcast, the BBC was inundated with 20,000 letters asking for the composer’s name). From the 1920s, his contract with his publishers stipulated that each year he produce one 15-minute and one five-minute orchestral work as well as five songs. The result was
a succession of suites and tone poems that are comparable to anything that Sullivan, Delius or Elgar composed in the same vein.

Elgar admired his Summer Days suite (1919) so much that, it is said, he wore out his recording of it. This was followed by three ‘Phantasies’ – The Selfish Giant (1925), The Three Bears (1926) and Cinderella (1929) – symphonic poems modelled on those by Richard Strauss; his other suites include Four Ways (1927), From Meadow to Mayfair (1931), London (1932), The Three Men (1935), London Again (1936), Springtime (1937), Four Centuries (1941) and The Three Elizabeths (1944), tone portraits of Elizabeth I, Queen Elizabeth (wife of George VI) and the then Princess Elizabeth. In 1936 he became one of the first to compose a concerted work for the solo saxophoneSaxo-Rhapsody – the same year, coincidentally, in which both Ibert and Glazunov wrote concertinos for the instrument. He was among the first Europeans to adopt the new American craze for syncopation into his symphonic works, most notably in the last movement of The Four Centuries Suite and The Three Bears.

And then there were the songs – around 160 of them. Most have long been forgotten, but the best of them, written before his success as an orchestral composer, linger in the repertoire of some singers: ‘I Pitch My Lonely Caravan’ (1921), ‘Birdsongs at Eventide’ (1926), ‘Stonecracker John’ (1909), ‘A Dinder Courtship’ (1912) and ‘The Green Hills o’ Somerset’ (1916), the last three just some of the 32 he composed with lyrics by the prolific lawyer-poet Fred E Weatherly. His first published song, ‘A Damask Rose’, was written in 1908 when he was still at the RAM. It sold in its thousands. The young Coates sold it outright for £5. No wonder he became a founder-member and director of the Performing Rights Society.

So, a serious composer who wrote music in a light vein with popular appeal. Does that mean he is any less a composer than, say, Kodály, Webern, Bax, Villa-Lobos, Martin – or others roughly contemporary? Critical opinion would suggest so, but it is worth bearing in mind the words of Percy Buck in The Scope of Music when we try and evaluate Coates and composers like him: ‘The writing of a learned eight-part fugue is within the power of any musician who cares to waste his time learning how to do it; but if he tries to reset the words “The sun whose rays are all ablaze” and then compares his music to Sullivan’s, he will have no doubts as to which is the more serious task.’

When did Coates die?

Three years after he composed his march for the 1954 film, The Dambusters he died from a stroke in 1957 and is cremated at Golders Green Crematorium.

Eric Coates's composing style

Defining the era

Listening to a Coates march or a movement from one of his suites defines the era and country as surely as Johann Strauss did in his. The vitality, strong rhythmic pulse, colourful orchestral garb, and unforgettable melodies combine to make music that not only has charm but is also – dare we say it? – fun.

Urban post-Empire

Coates adopts the practice of Edward Elgar (see below) of using a three-part texture – melody, bass and independent inner voices – but while he follows the model of the Pomp and Circumstance marches in his own, the first subjects and trios generally abandon nobilmente stateliness for hustle and bustle. 

Woof and warp

The music is not concerned with rigorous counterpoint but many numbers have busy secondary themes, such as the woodwind (especially bassoon and flute) parts bubbling under the main theme in the opening movement of The Three Elizabeths. If there is counterpoint – or even a fugal passage as in

The Three Bears – it is always done with apparently effortless ease.

Composer shows how

If Coates’s music offers a limited emotional range,

he is consistent in reflecting that in his own inimitable recordings which avoid any danger of lapsing into sentimentality. The brisk tempos, crisp ensemble and generous splashes of expertly placed percussion make them irresistible.

Illustration by Risko