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Coke, Roger Sacheverell (1912-1972)

Roger Sacheverell Coke

born: 1912
died: 1972
country: United Kingdom

The pianist and composer Roger Sacheverell Coke was born in Derbyshire in 1912. The son of an old Derbyshire family that traced its roots to the fifteenth century, Coke was raised by his mother Dorothy after his father died in combat early in the First World War. Schooled at Eton, Coke later studied composition with Alan Bush, theory with J Frederick Staton, and piano with Mabel Lander (a pupil of Leschetizky). Following his studies, Coke returned to the ancestral home, Brookhill Hall, where his mother converted the coach house and stable block to serve as his music studio and concert hall. This remained his home and the centre of his musical activities for the rest of his life.

Music for the piano was central to his creative output and Coke’s early success as a pianist quickly led to the performance of his compositions in Bath, Chesterfield, Torquay, London and Bournemouth, as well as with the Brookhill Symphony Orchestra, which he established in the early 1930s. His early works also attracted some favourable reviews, with a critic for the Bath Chronicle commenting in 1932—after the premiere of Coke’s first piano concerto—that ‘Mr Coke undoubtedly possesses a gift for composition of a high order. His work is conceived in a modern spirit, but is free from those extravagances which pass for originality in so much contemporary work.’ A second piano concerto followed in 1933, and was again premiered in Bath; a subsequent performance with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra under Dan Godfrey was broadcast on 14 March 1934.

But these early signs of promise did not translate into success in the longer term. A disciple of Rachmaninov, Coke evidently felt no kinship with the music either of the post-War European avant-garde or of his nearest British contemporary, Benjamin Britten. Instead, his unashamedly romantic musical style reflected his admiration for Bruckner, Mahler, Bax and Sibelius, as well as his sympathy with Russian music and culture generally, placing him outside the mainstream of British musical culture at that time. Coke was also highly self-critical, withdrawing his first twelve opuses—including the first and second piano concertos (despite their evident public success)—in around 1936. His unstable mental health was another factor, a diagnosis of schizophrenia in his twenties leading to prolonged spells of hospital confinement.

Performances of his music after the Second World War were mostly confined to the local Derbyshire orbit, notwithstanding a few appearances at the Wigmore Hall, and few works were published. His hopes for a wider resurgence of interest rested on two high-profile and entirely self-funded performances in London in the late 1950s: a planned concert at the Royal Festival Hall and a performance of his only opera, The Cenci, at the Scala Theatre, both under the baton of Sir Eugene Goossens. Based on the play by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the opera was panned by critics and never revived, while Goossens’ frustration at receiving rather muddled performing materials is documented in correspondence with Coke held by The British Library. A late renaissance seemed possible in 1970, when the pianist Moura Lympany programmed a couple of preludes in a recital at Abbotsholme School, later broadcast, and the composer himself was interviewed by the BBC, but Coke succumbed to a heart attack only two years later.

Thankfully much of Coke’s unpublished music was retained and a large collection of his manuscripts is now held by Chesterfield Library. His considerable output includes around a hundred songs, much solo piano music (sonatas, variations, and a set of twenty-four preludes), four symphonic poems for orchestra, sonatas for violin, cello, clarinet and viola, a string quartet, and two piano trios. A full assessment of Coke’s achievement awaits the publication and recording of more of this output.

from notes by Rupert Ridgewell © 2017


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