Overture 'The Comedy of Errors' [11'04]
Scherzo in A minor [8'14]
Estaminet de Carrefour [3'20]
Born in Scotland in 1888, Cecil Coles studied composition at Edinburgh University, the London College of Music, and Morley College where he befriended Gustav Holst. He furthered his studies in Stuttgart, and was later appointed assistant conductor at the Stuttgart Royal Opera House. Forced to return to England before the outbreak of the First World War, he signed up for overseas service, and in 1915 was sent to the trenches in France. He continued to compose, including the particularly poignant work Behind the lines (dated on the manuscript ‘Feb 4th 1918, In the Field’). The first surviving movement provides a sketch of a northern French pastoral landscape, the second a heroic picture of a military funeral procession. Some two months later, aged just 29, the life of this extraordinarily gifted young musician was extinguished.
Coles was killed near the Somme on 26 April 1918 during a heroic attempt to rescue some wounded comrades. He was one of the most talented of the composers who lost their lives in the First World War, yet few remember him now. Thanks to the persistence and research of his daughter Penny Catherine Coles, his manuscripts, some still embedded with shrapnel, have been painstakingly pieced together helping to create this first commercial recording of these, indeed any of his compositions. In the words of the conductor, ‘this is a most exciting project, musically, socially and historically’.
Travelling on a journey somewhere between Mendelssohn and Bruckner or Richard Strauss via Brahms, the music is powerful, beautiful, and full of pathos and emotional intensity, performed here by the BBCSSO under Martyn Brabbins as expressively and passionately as it was composed.
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They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
So wrote Robert Laurence Binyon in For the Fallen—but, though he was one of the most talented of the composers who lost their lives in the First World War, few remember Cecil Coles (1888–1918), and it is only through the persistence and research of his daughter, the author P Catherine Coles, that his manuscripts and published music have come to light. This is the first commercial recording of any of his compositions.
Gustav Holst remembered Coles with good reason. They holidayed in the Alps together in the halcyon days before the war to end all wars. Two composers, a Scot trained in part in Germany, and an Englishman who had to drop the ‘von’ from his name. Holst’s deeply moving Ode to Death was dedicated to ‘Cecil Coles and the fallen’, only Coles being named.
But it is on account of his own music that we should remember Coles for, though the body of work is necessarily small and mostly in manuscript, it has its own power and assurance. Its quiet strength and strange beauty shed light not only on the period, but bring a quality of vision that has as much meaning now as then.
Cecil Frederick Gottlieb Coles was born at ‘The Hermitage’, Tongland, Kirkcudbright on 7 October 1888 and died of wounds near the Somme on 26 April 1918. He is buried at Crouy, north west of Amiens. On his tombstone are the words ‘He was a genius before anything else and a hero of the first water’ written of him by ‘his great “chum” in the Battalion’, as Holst recounts.
Cecil was the second eldest of five, his mother, Margaret Neilson Coles (née Blacklock), having died after giving birth to the youngest. His father, Frederick Rhenius Coles, was a landscape painter and an archaeologist, later becoming Keeper of Queen Street Museum, Edinburgh.
It is not known when the family moved to Edinburgh, but Coles initially attended Daniel Stewart’s College and, from 1899, went to school at George Watson’s College, also in Edinburgh. It is clear from his surviving manuscripts that he must have been deeply involved in music from a reasonably early age, for his first surviving orchestral work (a Concert Overture in E minor) was completed when he was ‘AET 16’ (as he wrote at the end of the manuscript). Though the ideas are overstretched, it is clear that he already had a grasp of how to write for orchestra and, for a teenager who probably had not had much instruction, it is more than competent. The Nocturne for piano duet, composed in November 1904, is already characteristic of his later style in its stark simplicity of address.
By 1905 Coles had matriculated as a music student at Edinburgh University. The family were living at 2 Roseneath Street at this time, and one day, returning from the cobblers with a pair of repaired shoes, Coles read in the newspaper in which they were wrapped an advertisement for a composition scholarship to the London College of Music for which he duly applied. He won the Cherubini Scholarship in 1906, possibly with the score of From the Scottish Highlands, a three-movement orchestral suite that he worked on between 1905 and 1907, by which time he had moved to London where he had to learn to fend for himself. It was not easy and for his midday lunch he made do with the smell of the pickles from the local pickle factories. Fortunately he was taken under the wing of a Miss Nancy Brooke. She ensured that he had an adequate diet and also introduced him to Morley College, where she taught wood-carving and kept the orchestral library. There he met Gustav Holst, newly appointed as Director in 1907, and Coles also joined the Morley College orchestra in that year. It was not ready for public appearances at that time, but Holst wrote of Coles that his ‘genuine love of and talent for music, combined with his never failing geniality, enthusiasm and energy, worked wonders at a time when wonders, of that sort, were badly needed’.
One of the first works he composed after arriving in London was the Invocation of 1906. This is a setting of a scene from Goethe’s Faust for soprano and piano, but with orchestration in mind. Compared with the orchestral suite of the same period, it shows a remarkable advance in compositional technique—particularly in harmonic development—and is composed with a combination of simplicity and passion ideally suited to the drama and astonishingly assured for a teenager.
A year later Coles composed In the Cathedral, a reverie for string orchestra and piano or harp. It is based upon a transposition of the musical motif produced by the initial letters of his full name, and which he placed on the front of the score with the matching notes: Cecil Frederick Gottlieb Coles—CFGC.
In 1908 Coles won the Bucher Scholarship—administered by the Reid School of Music—and went to study in Stuttgart. Théophile Bucher had been a friend of the Mackenzie family, and it is conceivable that Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (Principal of the RAM who had himself studied in Germany) suggested that Coles apply for it. In any event, it must have been a major stimulus for Coles who was only twenty years of age. Miss Brooke went out with him to make a home and acting as a mother to him. In 1909/10 he composed the Scherzo in a-Moll für grosses Orchester under the pseudonym ‘Naxos’. It was completed on Ascension Day. In 1911 Coles’s scholarship was given an unprecedented extension for six months and it is conceivable that this work has something to do with that fact. On the other hand, his Overture Die Komödie der Irrungen (‘The Comedy of Errors’), which was also composed in Stuttgart in 1911 and performed later in Cologne Conservatoire on 25 June 1913, is a possible candidate. It was in the same year (1911) that Coles and Holst set off for a walking tour in Switzerland. Holst wrote that he was ‘having the biggest rest I’ve had in my life … and Cecil Coles ist ein ausgezeichnet prachtvoll Führer! [Cecil Coles is an excellent, magnificent leader!] The only drawback is that I’m not as young and vigorous as I was …’
At about this time, Coles was appointed assistant conductor at the Stuttgart Royal Opera House, giving him the opportunity to rub shoulders with musicians such as Richard Strauss. Some of his works were even performed at the Liederhalle in Stuttgart, a considerable honour for such a young foreign composer. In 1912 he was married in St Saviour’s Church, Brockley Rise, London, and took his wife back to Germany. There, in Stuttgart, he set Alfred de Musset’s Les Moissons for voice and piano. Brief and exquisite, it epitomizes the concluding lines ‘A plant bowed low by rain / But radiant with flowers!’. It was presumably at this time also that he wrote the Fünf Skizzen für Klavier published in Magdeburg. They are perfect miniatures: Zum Anfang gently persuasive, Ihr Bild like an innocent song without words and, after a busy Kleine Etüde and ghostly Phantome, concluding with the longing and lonely backward look of Rückblick.
However, in 1913 with the approach of the First World War, Cecil and his wife returned to England. Holst wrote that ‘he never joined in the ordinary hatred of Germany; he was utterly incapable of hatred under any provocation whatsoever. But he told me that in spite of all the courtesy and kindness he was receiving he found life there impossible.’
In England Coles toured with the Beecham Opera Company as chorus master and taught elementary harmony and sight-singing at Morley College, also taking over choral and orchestral classes when Holst was on holiday, Holst describing him as ‘our good friend … who has so often helped me in the past’. In 1913 Coles’s first child was born and named Brooke after Miss Nancy Brooke, who became his godmother.
It was at this time that he composed his most important surviving work, Fra Giacomo, a powerful dramatic monologue for voice and orchestra, the revision of which was completed on 23 May 1914. Here is no nostalgic Triste et gai but a work which searches deeply into our behaviour without fear or favour. Nobody comes well out of it, but the drama and psychology of the situation are masterfully realized, with a frightening insight into the darkest aspects of humanity. Did Coles feel some kind of parallel between this and the breakdown of trust between Britain and Germany? The First World War saw an end to those cultural links which had done so much for British musicians—Mackenzie, Lamond, Coles himself. For all the xenophobia of those times, there must also have been a sense of deep cultural loss, almost bereavement. The contesting monarchs were themselves first cousins. Mackenzie had dedicated his greatest work, The Rose of Sharon, to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, Victoria—Kaiser Wilhelm II’s mother. And Mackenzie’s Scottish Concerto, published in Leipzig, was itself a casualty of war:
I see that the Germans are melting down all music plates for bullets … no doubt by this time the concerto has been re-cast in another form, less musical, but more effective perhaps. You see how this ghastly business touches us all in many queer forms. (Mackenzie to Frederick Dawson, 12 October 1914)
It was to touch Coles only too deeply. In 1915 he signed up for overseas service in the 9th London Regiment—Queen Victoria Rifles. Stationed in France, he corresponded regularly with Holst—‘I could fill a whole number of the magazine with extracts from his splendid letters. They were always full of bravery and music, of details of impromptu concerts, of his band (he was sergeant bandmaster), of rejoicings over the Morley programmes’. Alas the correspondence does not survive. On his last leave from France Coles spent an evening carol-singing at Morley College.
In January 1917 he set Robert Browning’s Benediction ‘Grow old along with me’ and in February of that year wrote the Sorrowful Dance for small orchestra, dedicated ‘To my dear wife’. It was composed at Southampton Rest Camp on 1 February 1917, and rewritten in France on 19 May. It would not be surprising if these moving works were written with a sense of foreboding: the casualties were horrific and Coles was ready to take his share of risk although he would, ‘under ordinary circumstances, have remained at the transport lines’ as the regimental doctor wrote. On one occasion Coles was saved from straying into enemy lines when Cassiopeia the constellation appeared from behind a cloud to show him he was going the wrong way, but his luck was not to hold.
Throughout what must have been harrowing experiences, Coles was a regular and prized attendant at gramophone record sessions behind the lines, listening to Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert symphonies. These sessions were run by the Medical Officer, Captain Gourlay, who wrote that he ‘was never quite happy unless Sergeant Coles was there, as he was the most appreciative of my audience’. And despite it all, Coles kept composing, including the final item on this album, Behind the lines. At the end Coles has written ‘Feb 4th 1918 In the Field’.
Two months later, aged only twenty-nine, he was dead. He had volunteered to help bring in some casualties from a wood, and on their return two of the stretcher-bearers were killed and Coles was mortally wounded. Fortunately, he appears to have been unaware of the seriousness of his injuries, humming a little Beethoven and asking whether his piano-playing would be affected. The M.O. wrote to his widow, ‘I think there can be little doubt that your husband died of shock, in which case he would not suffer any pain’. One of his regimental mates wrote of him ‘Cecil was a genius before anything else, and a hero of the first water. I admired him more than anyone, highly strung and sensitive, but with a fine, firm, noble will, and able to bring it into force at the critical moment’.
Coles was survived by his wife, his son, and his baby daughter Catherine. Penny Catherine Coles never knew her father and, as a young girl at St Paul’s School for Girls in London, was too shy to draw from her music teacher the information that would have meant so much to her and the musical world in later years. Her music teacher was Gustav Holst.
‘They shall grow not old …’ wrote Binyon, but, as Browning has God say in the Benediction: ‘A whole I planned. Youth shows but half’. Youth showed but half of Cecil Coles, but what we have is more than worthy of revival. There is a strange haunting blossoming in his music that is hard to place. It hovers on the edge of Edwardian simplicities, but there is a deep inner angst which is expressed with profoundly saddening knowingness, and yet tender or light-hearted, as well as sometimes bitter. There is a sophistication in this music which is beyond analysis, a déjà vu which somehow feels anew and can even unexpectedly shock. Without any overstatement or false drama, its occasional wide-eyed boyish directness reveals an understanding of inner sorrows, and a human sympathy which still reaches out to us generations later, from behind the lines.
John Purser © 2002