Ernest J. Moeran

1894 - 1950

British

Summary


The rich and vigorous stream of E.J. Moeran's music rose from two main springs - his heritage and the natural surroundings of his own country. He had always been a keen collector and arranger of folk music. The composer's frank avowal that his symphony 'may be said to owe its inspiration to the natural surroundings in which it was written' shows how markedly the English and Irish landscapes swayed his musical thought.

In July 1945 he married Peers Coetmore, the well-known cellist, for whom he wrote his Cello Concerto; from 1934 onwards he made southern Ireland his second home.

It was the folk-song that liberated the lyrical part of Moeran's young mind, and he never lost that lyrical power of song which showed itself as early as the beginning of the 1920's in the slow movement of his String Quartet No 1. Here already we come across that new use of the diatonic scale, with suspensions and secondary sevenths, of which Moeran was a master.

Yet, though he has amply covered the field of orchestral music, chamber music, concertos, and smaller vocal works, one would not describe Moeran's as a thinly-spread talent. He keeps to his centre, which is a purely musical one.

Biography

The rich and vigorous stream of E.J. Moeran's music rose from two main springs - his heredity and the natural surroundings of his own countries. Though he was born at Osterley, Middlesex, near London but then a rural place, on December 31, 1894, Moeran was no Townsman, and topographical details play an important part in his biography. He was educated at Uppingham and the Royal College of Music, and after serving in the first World War, took composition lessons with John Ireland.

During this earlier period he lived in Norfolk, where not only the landscape but the folk songs had much influence on his mind; he had always been a keen collector and arranger of folk music. Another county, Somerset, warmer and more coloured in its landscape perhaps, had some effect on him, too. But it is important to realise that Moeran was partly Irish by extraction; Ireland had increasing importance for him all through his life, and he lived there much. One more place must be mentioned, the village of Kingston in Herefordshire, on the border of Radnorshire, where some of his time was latterly spent. The composer's frank avowal that his symphony ' may be said to owe its inspiration to the natural surroundings in which it was written' shows how markedly the English and Irish landscapes swayed his musical thought.

Moeran's life was wholly devoted to the writing of music, and a biographical account of him is in the main discussion of his works. But it should be here recorded that in July of 1945 he married Peers Coetmore, the well-known cellist, for whom he wrote his Cello Concerto; and also that from 1934 onwards he made southern Ireland his second home, living for a great part of the year in the neighbourhood of Kenmare, co. Kerry, where he died on December 1, 1950.

Considered as a whole, Moeran's music has a strong individuality and a very personal flavour. The recipe is the composer's own, and there is none other like it. Yet, though he has amply covered the field of orchestral music, chamber music, concertos, and smaller vocal works, one would not describe Moeran's as a varied talent. He keeps to his centre, which is a purely musical one. On the other hand, I have already used the word 'rich', and by that word I mean that this personal recipe is made up of a number of apparently conflicting ingredients: I need hardly add, again, that the dish is not to be cooked by any but himself. Thus if we find in this music spontaneity, in the sense of absolute truthfulness of utterance; but one would not call it fluent, in the sense of running easily out of the pen and mind. There is no gratuitous arabesque, no irrelevant ornamentation or filling out of vacant spaces with vague musical meanderings. Then again, we find a deeply felt instinct for beauty, for something that is not to be found in 'London, the town built ill'; but the spirit of the works is one of robustness and vigour, at the same time.

It was, I believe, the folk-song that liberated the lyrical part of Moeran's younger mind, and he never lost that lyrical power of song which showed itself as early as the beginning of the 1920's in the slow movement of his String Quartet. Here, already, we come across that new use of the diatonic scale, with suspensions and secondary sevenths, of which Moeran was a master. His idiom, like that of English and Irish folk-song, depends rather upon the interval of a full tone than upon that of a semitone. There are a few actual folk-songs or dances used in his work as thematic material, though his cast of phrase is directed to some extent by the example of the peasant singer. The folk-song helped Moeran to keep his orchestral lines vocal, so that his works may sing from the heart in the modern concert hall; yet, more and more, his instrumental works may have become abstract and self-contained. The lyrical muses join their hands to bless and watch over him; but he is no rhapsodist. His main works (and I mean most of his writings) are well constructed on a firm and formal plan, without imposing any strain on his first thoughts. Eric Blom has characterised his musical speech as having 'a touch of dialect'. It does not qualify him for me; in fact, I prefer it; we shall not, perhaps, be long able to enjoy anything but some hideous communised speech. I know that Moeran used that touch of dialect to tell me eternal truths, with an outspokenness that may not suit either a Victorian drawing room or a post-second-war 'lounge', but it is the speech of one artist to another humbler one who is willing to listen. And, after all these contradictions, Moeran remains a Romantic - one whose eyes (in Mrs. Gaskell's words) 'dwelt on all things with a lingering light'.

Hunting influences in a composer's work is today, it seems, as popular a field sport as hunting foxes was in past years, or the more proletarian sport of rat-catching. In this firm and personal composer's music, it is not difficult to find here and there a fingerprint of Delius, but the pressure of that finger has been much over-rated. One could perhaps guess from some of the earlier works that he was a friend of the late Peter-Warlock-Philip-Heseltine. There are signs in the later works that he had learnt a method of composing (one or two parts of one method, shall we say?) from Jean Sibelius. But it seems quite likely that the second liberator of his mind, the other being folk-music, was Bernard van Dieren. No composer could conceivably be more different from any of the other composers named.

COMPOSITIONS OF E.J MOERAN BY HUBERT FOSS

News

Performances

15th May 2020

PERFORMERS
Orchestre d’Avignon
CONDUCTOR
Hans Zender
LOCATION
Avignon / France

25th October 2020

PERFORMERS
Port Sunlight Orchestral Society

Photos

Discography