Eric Coates was born on 27 August 1886 at Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. At the age of 20 he came to London determined to make a career in music. He won a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music
, studying viola with Lionel Tertis and composition with Frederick Corder (who also taught Arnold Bax). He soon established himself as one of the country's foremost viola players and as a composer of songs and light orchestral works.
In 1908 Coates became a member of the Hambourg String Quartet for a tour of South Africa. The following year he was a founder member of the Beecham Symphony Orchestra before joining the viola section of the Queen's Hall Orchestra in 1910. Two years later he was promoted to the principals' chair of Sir Henry Wood's
orchestra. It was though this orchestra that he met his future wife Phyllis Black. Although a very modest wan, he enjoyed telling the story about members of the orchestra having a competition to see who would be the first to play an entire score from memory - and how he won!
In 1919 Henry Wood would not renew his contract so Coates gave up playing to become a hill-time composer. Over the years, Wood became unhappy with Coates as one of his principals. Wood was very serious about his music while Coates, who was equally professional, had a lighter approach. Occasionally he missed a rehearsal and his compositions, already hugely popular, tended to be encored. Wood detested both deputies and encores.
Coates never played again, but his composing went from strength to strength. Each year he would produce a major suite and a batch of songs, plus an intermezzo, waltz or serenade. His experience of being conducted by many famous musicians, including Elgar, Strauss, Nikisch, Mengelberg and Beecham was invaluable to Coates as a composer, as can be seen in his compositions.
Coates enjoyed conducting his own music and had very decided views on the subject. He liked his music to be taken at brisk and lively tempi - he frowned on those conductors who made it sound slow and stodgy - there was nothing like that about him.
Eric Coates was greatly influenced in his early years by Edward German - as shown in 'In a Country Lane' from Summer Days Suite
- and Arthur Sullivan, but after 1920 Coates developed his own distinctive style, the most significant feature of which was his understanding and use of the newly-introduced American syncopated idiom. He was the first European composer to treat modern syncopation as a serious contribution to orchestral music and to introduce into symphonic writing the dance-band practice of treating each instrument of the brass section as soloist and has used it iii several of his most successful compositions, including Muir Ways Suite
(1927), The Three Men Suite
(1925) and Saxo-Rhapsody
It was in the 1920s and 1930s that Eric Coates really came into his own. With the advent of broadcasting his music reached a wide audience of people who preferred good tunes to the imponderables of symphonic music.
Whereas many British composers sought inspiration in the countryside it was usually the reverse for Coates. He was most happy working amongst the sound and excitement of London (London Everyday
and London Again Suites
). Inspiration sometimes cane to him iii the most unusual places. A certain pillar box in Harley Street, for instance, is said to have inspired one of his marches.
Eric Coates made his last conducting appearance at the Royal Concert with the BBC Concert Orchestra
playing before Her Majesty the Queen on 26 November 1957. Three weeks later he suffered a massive stroke and was taken to hospital in Chichester where he died three days later on 21 December. Within hours, the BBC informed the world of the death of ’the uncrowned king of light music'.
Sir Charles Groves wrote of Eric Coates:
'… (he) was a gentle and quietly spoken man but his music crackled with vitality. He could write tunes and could clothe them in the most attractive instrumental colours. He did not, as far as I know, aspire to writing symphonies or oratorios. He knew what he could do and he did it superbly well. Someone once said that the marches of Souza 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.'