'Eric Coates was a gentle and quietly spoken man but his music crackled with enthusiasm and vitality. He could write tunes and clothe them in the most attractive musical colours . . . Someone once said that the marches of Sousa would make a man with a wooden leg step out; a man would have to have a wooden heart not to respond to the music of Eric Coates.'
Sir Charles Groves
Born in 1886, Eric Coates was the youngest son of five children. His father was a local doctor whose home and surgery were on Tenter Hill, Hucknall. As a child Eric would lay awake at night listening to the Hucknall Old Brass Band practising in the nearby Plough and Harrow Inn, and when he was six he became the proud owner of a violin.
His mother was a fine pianist, his father played the flute, and they formed an orchestra that included Eric and his three sisters. By the age of ten, Eric was first violin and within two years was writing in a part for any player who unexpectedly turned up for orchestral rehearsal, no matter what the instrument was - violin, double-bass, cello or woodwind.
When not practising his music, young Eric would chase rats around the stable with his father's bulldogs. Always smartly dressed with a scarf around his neck to protect his chest, he was described by everyone as a gentleman.
He studied violin and composition in Nottingham until, at the age of twenty, he gained a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London. There he studied composition under Frederick Corder, and the viola under the well-known virtuoso Lionel Tertis.
Already there were signs of health problems. A prey to colds, he succumbed to pneumonia, and became aware of a numbness in the fingers of his left hand - neuritis, or 'that gnawing ache', as he called it.
To supplement his income, Eric played in theatre orchestras for 6 shillings a night before touring South Africa with the Hambourg String Quintette. It was the age of ballad concerts at which song ballads were sung by such singers as Gervase Elwes and Nellie Melba and the poet Fred E. Weatherley agreed for Eric to set his poems to music. The outcome was the rousing baritone song, Stonecracker John, inspired, rhythmically at least, by the jolting of a bus. It started a vogue for this type of song.
Sir Henry Wood
After leaving the Royal Academy, Eric secured a position as viola player with the original Beecham Symphony Orchestra. Later he joined the Queen's Hall Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood at £2 10s a week. He sent home to Hucknall for his bicycle so he could explore London.
Brilliant sight-reading ability made up for the pain in his left hand and Eric became principal viola with Sir Henry Wood from 1911 to 1919.
While attending a concert at the Academy, he fell in love at first sight with Phyllis Black (pictured right), an attractive girl of sixteen. 'Too young!' her parents said, and there was a two year wait before they married in 1913. She wrote lyrics and helped him in everything he did.
Not fit for service in the 1914-18 war,Coates wrote Four Songs of the Air as testimony to the RFC. By July 19, troubled by neuritis in his left hand and arm, he had to give up the viola and devote himself to composing and conducting performances of his own music.
The masterpiece The Merrymakers Overture was followed by a series of Phantasies on nursery stories: The Selfish Giant ; The Three Bears, based on his own little family - his only son Austin was born in 12; Cinderella; and Snowdrop and the Seven Dwarfs which anticipated the famous Walt Disney film by several years. The Morning Post wrote: 'Something about Mr. Eric Coates himself, as well as his music, suggests a spirit of perennial youthfulness.'
He and his wife were untiring dancers, mastering all the new steps, and he began to embrace the syncopating styles of the Jazz Age in his music. One of his best-loved tunes, By the Sleepy Lagoon, later became a favourite on American juke boxes and still introduces Desert Island Discs on the radio every week. Coates loved the city of his adoption and set London to music, portraying Convent Garden, Westminster and Knightsbridge in his London Suite.
He didn't forget Nottinghamshire, often saying that the motivations for many of his pastoral works were inspired by his childhood love for his native Nottinghamshire. His suite From Meadow to Mayfair traced his itinerary from his birthplace in Hucknall to his flat in Baker Street.
In Town Tonight
The movement Knightsbridge March from his London Suite with its traffic noises, street cries and fanfares was chosen to introduce the BBC's new radio feature In Town Tonight. Thousands of listeners rang the BBC to request the title of the tantalising few bars they had just heard and 20,000 letters descended on the BBC asking the composer's name. Gramophone records of the march could not be made fast enough. Like his favourite poet, Byron, Eric Coates woke up one morning to find himself famous.
In Town Tonight ran for 27 years and Eric Coates became England's best known composer at home and abroad. His melodies were whistled in the streets as well as sung in concert halls.
The music of Eric Coates was always typically English, whether he was capturing the English village atmosphere in the Countryside Suite, or the familiar scenes of his beloved London in London Suite. What he 'had to offer, was memorable melody, foot-tapping rhythm and clear orchestration.' He used to say that in his early days, he had to play so many dull viola parts that he made up his mind that every instrument should have an interesting part, and that is what makes his orchestrations so colourful.
Eric didn't scorn other schools of music and was probably the first to use the dance band trick of syncopation in serious music. One of the few composers to use the saxophone as a solo instrument in serious music, his Saxo-Rhapsody was written for alto-saxophone and orchestra.
His wife Phyllis became a Red Cross worker at the outbreak of war and inspired Eric to write Calling All Workers which the BBC adopted for as the signature tune its the new Music While You Work programme in 1940. The music became one of the war's most potent symbols and his Eighth Army march matched the turning point of the war with the Battle of El Alamein.
The Three Elizabeths Suite, completed while enemy 'doodle bugs' were falling around him in London, received a first performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Christmas Eve, 1944. Parts of the it, Halcyon Days, opened and closed BBC Television's serialisation of The Forsyte Saga in the 60's. A march he wrote especially for the Nottingham City Police Band in 1953 was called Men of Trent - strangely, it seemed, within a few hours of a request, tunes would come into his head.
His concert waltz Sweet Seventeen was inscribed 'for my beloved Phyl', and shortly after, when he was approached to write something for the new film The Dambusters, he replied: 'I think I finished it yesterday.' A suitable march had already been penned and it proved a winner. It made the Top Ten in 1955, remained there for over a year and was even adapted as a hymn tune.
On a Saturday night in August 1956 at a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Malcom Sargent conducted a work by Tchaikovsky and then brought Eric on with a flourish to conduct his own Four Centuries Suite. The orchestra was tired after the demanding Tchaikovsky work and the difficult violin solo was fluffed. The audience laughed when the tenor saxophone came in, and laughed again when the trumpet played 'into the hat'. At the end though, the audience stood on their feet cheering and yelling while Eric took two calls.
In defiance of BBC rules - the concert was being broadcast - Eric took up his baton and conducted the fourth movement again. This time the orchestra produced a perfect performance and was greeted by an even greater deafening uproar. Eric took two more calls and then said: 'Now, I'm going home and so must you.' The audience cheered him out of sight.
Eric Coates died of a stroke aged 71 on December 21, 1957, at the Royal West Sussex Hospital. Within hours the BBC was announcing throughout the world the death of 'the uncrowned king of light music.'
The funeral took place on Christmas Eve at the Golders Green Crematorium where the service was attended by some of the country's leading musicians. For almost fifty years Eric Coates had brought pleasure to millions with his gay lilting tunes, bright orchestrations and witty musical portraiture.
Sir Malcom Sargent: 'Here we had a professional musician who did his own orchestrations, who was an expert, who had that rare quality, a melodic gift, which hardly exists in modern music. He was a charming and most lovable person.'
Sir Adrian Boult: 'He was a master of charm and gentle beauty in music, while at the same time able to compose rousing marches. He has given a great deal of pleasure to a great number of people, the author of the kind of music that makes people happy.'