Borderland Interlude:
E J Moeran in Herefordshire


Gravel Hill, Kington, c.1940

My dearest Peers,

At Kington I can go into the pastures or up the hill and somehow feel that you are there with me in a telepathic way. Don't forget to think of me up on Bradnor planning out my music.

15th December, 1943

E J Moeran - 'Jack' to all his friends - loved walking. A stroll to the local Post Office could finish, quite without plan, alone on the summit of some high mountain. No one looked less like a hiker, the formality of a pinstripe suit contrasting with the informality of an open necked shirt, whatever the weather; on his way out of the house, always stopping to talk to the gardener, then striding out along the river path, puffing away at his pipe. On his return, relaxed, smiling contentedly, sometimes whistling softly, enthusing openly about 'this wonderful air of Kington - the healthiest place in the British Isles!'

A close contact with nature was something that his future wife, the cellist Peers Coetmore, had to experience with him. Together they would create great music:

"...the thing is how to round it off so as to make a satisfying ending. Anyhow, after some days sedentary I shall have to summon up the energy to go up the hills and try and think out the finish"

4th May, 1945, Kington [Work on the Cello Concerto in progress]


Moeran and Peers on Hergest Ridge

The market town of Kington lies some 19 miles northwest of Hereford. Sheltered by a valley of the River Arrow, it is surrounded by hills which form the centre of a great circle dominated by Bradnor Hill and Hergest Ridge. Nearby lies the vastness of the Radnor Forest, 25 square miles of mountains reaching out across the border into the heart of mid Wales. From the summit of Great Rhos, Moeran would proudly point towards 'Housman country' or 'Elgar country'. Today we might add, 'and here is Moeran country.'

No one could have been more aware of the 'Spirit of Place'. Some of Moeran's earliest childhood memories were of North Sea gales sweeping over the family house on the Norfolk coast and the sighing of the wind through the reeds of Broadland. As Peter Warlock observed, 'something of the indefinable spirit of the English landscape' is already present in Moeran's earliest compositions.

Like many of his contemporaries, Moeran encountered the poetry of A E Housman. But the Borderland seen through the eyes of 'The Shropshire Lad' was dreamlike, remote and hardly much of a reality. Friendship and travel with Warlock were to alter the perspective.

Warlock shared with Moeran a passion for Ireland, fast motor bikes and railways. For Housman's 'nostalgic fantasies' he had little time. His 'Heaven on Earth' was the Golden Valley, that stretch of country which lies between Ross-on-Wye and the Black Mountains. It was part of Elgar's 'sweet borderland', a tangible landscape waiting to be explored. Moeran first experienced it during the late 1920s but showed little desire to turn his impressions into music. Perhaps too many had already done so; not for him the path of 'pale imitation'.

Jack might not have returned to Herefordshire but for a strange co-incidence. His brother Graham had followed their father Joseph into the priesthood; by 1937 Graham was the vicar of Leominster, midway between Hereford and Ludlow. Norfolk, now in danger of losing its rural calm to the construction of new airfields, was no longer a suitable family base.


Gravel Hill today

'Gravel Hill Villa' first receives mention in the 1845 History of Kington as 'a praiseworthy example of building in the Italian Style, surrounded by plantations situated on a gentle eminence'. By the time Graham came to purchase it for his parents, the property was in need of extensive renovation. Esther Moeran took the opportunity of converting a small studio at the side of the house for her 'Eddie John', in the hope that Jack could be persuaded to come and live permanently there.

So far as is known, Moeran's first visit to Kington was on 11 August 1938, but a letter addressed from there to a Norfolk friend doubts whether 'I will ever see you again'. The mood is wistful, sad, with no mention of the new house. Two days later he had returned to his own 'Heaven on Earth' - Kenmare in Southern Ireland. From mid 1941, however, he was beginning to spend much more time at 'Gravel Hill'; its secluded position on the edge of the town was ideal. From this period emerges a new picture of the composer at work:

Breakfast time was at nine o'clock and he always had it with his parents. The rest of the day he was in his study. I had to finish everything before Mr Jack started on his composing. The whole house had to be silent. Mrs Moeran told us 'No one must make a noise or any sound'.*

Salads replaced hot meals because the cook, Jessie, was not allowed to open the oven door. After long silences the piano would suddenly be heard:

It flowed from that study...like the rippling of a stream. Sometimes it would be like the rustling of the trees, another time it would be like he was going for the sound of the birds.*

The maids would take in a tray:

He'd be in a world of his own...the piano was on the left hand side; he had his desk with all his stuff on it, and there was one window - he was right under it when he was composing. He'd do something, then he'd put the paper on one side, throwing the music across, as if he was sorting out what he didn't want on one side, and what he was going to try out the other side. He had half a dozen wastepaper baskets, all full up, but nobody dared empty them.*


View from Moeran's study window at Gravel Hill

From this small room, in four years, came music that sprang from the surrounding hills and mountains - the Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra, the Overture to a Masque, first ideas for the Cello Sonata and part of the Cello Concerto. There was one other work - the Sinfonietta, Moeran's 'symphony of the Welsh Marches', in which he aspired to greatness and achieved it. Whether accompanied by his friend Dr Dick Jobson from New Radnor on his rounds or disappearing for weeks at a time into the Cambrian Mountains, the small attache case containing his manuscript paper would never leave Jack's side.

It was at St Mary's Church, Kington, on 26 July, 1945, that Jack Moeran finally married Peers Coetmore. Shortly afterwards the family association with 'Gravel Hill' ceased. The Revd Joseph Moeran had died two years previously; with Jack's departure, Esther Moeran sold the house, paid off the servants and went to live with Graham, now Rector of Ledbury. 'Cottie' was expected to provide Jack with the continuing security.

Within two years the marriage was in trouble. Peers, annoyed by Jack's reluctance to accept London as a permanent home, insisted on pursuing her own career, accepting lengthy engagements abroad. Jack went back to being a restless wanderer. So-called 'friends' would engage him in senseless drinking bouts. 'Without you I am like a ship without a rudder', he wrote to Peers in one of many letters begging her to return. Ledbury Rectory could have brought back stability for Jack, but as sympathy gave way to intolerance there were few happy moments. Esther Moeran was no longer mistress of her own house and Graham soon felt a moral obligation to shield her from the worst excesses of Jack's alcoholism. Work on a Second Symphony continued during periods of convalescence, but only fitfully. On one occasion Jack returned from a walk on the Malvern Hills convinced that Elgar had placed a curse on it. E flat had been the key of another 'Second' - Elgar's 'Spirit of Delight'. Jack's letters to Peers written in 1949 are still loving but always tinged with sadness. Where can he settle down? Where will he go? Who will have him?

I am going up to New Radnor tomorrow for a few days, & my immediate suggestion is going to be to Dick that, provided I can get a room in the village during the hot weather, whether I couldn't come into the Jobsons' house for as much time as I want to use the piano...if I could do this, I could ring the changes between there & Ledbury during the interim period till I settle somewhere for the winter...It's this promised Symphony for next year which is the trouble.

Ledbury 1949


Moeran in the Borderlands

But the spirit of 'Gravel Hill' could not be recaptured. Jack celebrated his return to Kington with a prolonged visit to 'Ye Olde Taverne': the result was disastrous. All that Dick Jobson could do was counsel a terribly depressed man who no longer had faith in himself as a composer.

Eighteen months later, Jack Moeran was dead. The Second Symphony remained incomplete.

There is a strange postscript. At 'Gravel Hill', if anyone interrupted a radio concert that Jack was listening to, he would quickly put up his hand and silence the offender with a 'stop traffic' gesture. At about 4 pm on 1 December, 1950, a Ledbury woman who knew the Moeran family spotted Jack walking up the main street. Surprised but glad to see him back in town, she made to cross over to talk to him; up came his hand in the manner that would suffer no interruption. The woman turned away, offended. At the earliest opportunity she complained to Esther about her son's conduct, blissfully unaware that at the same moment when she had encountered Jack, his dead body was being brought ashore from the waters of Kenmare River in Southern Ireland.

It is fitting that the Hereford meeting of the Three Choirs will celebrate the Centenary of the composer's birth. Now that much of Moeran's music is available on disc, the time has come for a re-evaluation of his work through live performances. One thing is sure - the 'last of the true Romantics' should win many new friends.

by Barry Marsh
from Three Choirs Festival Programme, Hereford 1994

(*Mrs Maud Parry in conversation with the author, July 1985)

 

 

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after some days sedentary I shall have to summon up the energy to go up the hills and try and think out the finish...