a watery death
STORMY December night in Co. Kerry in 1950, the composer
E. J. (Jack) Moeran fell off the pier and was dead when pulled
from the water. He was 56. Some who knew him feared it was
suicide; others who thought they knew him even better suspected
he was drunk and had accidentally drowned.
Neither theory was correct. There
was no water in his lungs and he had had a cerebral haemorrhage,
the final victory for the shrapnel which had lodged in his head
on the Western Front in 1917 and for the plate which doctors had
fitted into his skull. For six months before his death he had not
touched alcohol and had lived in solitude with the knowledge that
his powers of concentration would soon utterly fail him.
For 32 years he was a walking casualty,
his "alcoholism" regarded as either a joke or an embarrassment,
whereas it was an escape. Often his unsteadiness was not drink,
but a symptom of the shrapnel pressing on his brain. Not that the
legend of his drinking was unfounded. No man who consorted with
Peter Warlock at Eynsford in the 1920s
or shared a mistress with Augustus John could escape untainted and
Moeran did both. When Harriet Cohen complained of discordance in
one of his works, Moeran told her it was scarcely surprising as
it had been inspired by the four-ale bars of Kerry.
Considering what a hold Moeran's music
still has on a substantial minority of devotees of British music
of this century, it is odd that no full-length study has appeared
until now when, as often happens, two books* arrive simultaneously.
They are complementary: Geoffrey Self's is a study of the works,
with biography mixed in; Lionel Hill's is a vivid account of his
seven-year friendship with the composer, unpretentiously and affectionately
written and enlivened by many of Moeran's letters.
Moeran belongs to what Lutyens maliciously
and jealously called the "cowpat" school, a jibe against composers
like Vaughan Williams, who favoured
folk song and pastoral lyricism in some of their works rather than
the acerbities of atonalism. It is an unperceptive jibe, for it
reveals inability or unwillingness to peer beneath the surface of
this music into its complex emotional depths. He was also, like
several of his colleagues between the wars, under the sway of Sibelius,
too much for the ultimate good of his Symphony
in G minor.
Mr Self lists all the borrowings in
this long-gestated work and speculates that they were used by Moeran
as points of reference to reinforce a hidden emotional programme.
This is ingenious and frank but perhaps a little unfair. More significant
is the revelation that the work is probably a personal war requiem,
its message encoded by reference to the folk song "The Shooting
of His Dear", quoted not so much for its melody as for its words
which suggest an allegory of war ("Cursed be that old gunsmith that
made my old gun").
Moeran was not a natural symphonist
and realised it (his friend Bax was
less self-perceptive and wrote seven symphonies). The symphony will
survive because it is an intimate human document but also because
it contains some unforgettable passages of nature painting in sound.
Like Bax (born in Streatham), Moeran (born in Isleworth) had a love
affair with Ireland, although it was the people and the landscape
rather than its history and legends which ensnared him.
He consummated this love in one of
his finest works, the Violin
Concerto (1937-42). Here, too, poetry germinated the music,
in this case James Joyce, and the mood of "taking sad leave at close
of day" haunts all three movements, even during an Irish jig. Concerto
form suited Moeran's style, as he showed late in the marvellous
Cello Concerto he
wrote for Peers Coetmore, his partner in a disastrous but musically
fruitful marriage. (He was not cut out to be a husband, being a
vagabond-tinker at heart, longing for a job "minding a railway crossing
in some remote spot with two trains a week". He has, by the way,
an encyclopaedic knowledge of locomotives.)
Moeran was a romantic, in the line
of Delius, Bax and John
Ireland. Yet, as Mr Self convincingly and readably demonstrates,
at his best he composed in an economic, lucid and self-disciplined
manner, controlling the self-indulgence with which his emotional
temperament could easily have become enmeshed. His technique was
always adroit, sometimes highly sophisticated, and clarity of texture
was his watchword. The Sinfonietta
is the proof of this.
Through all Moeran's compositions runs that vein of
melancholy which, as in Dowland or Elgar,
pervades the finest of English music. Lionel Hill calls him "a gifted
and loveable man" and those epithets apply equally to his works.
These books send us back to the music and we find here desolation
and anguish expressed with a certainty and precision which are now
all too poignantly understandable.
Music of E. J. Moeran" by Geoffrey Self (Toccata Press)
"Lonely Waters, the diary of a friendship" by Lionel Hill (Thames