Life behind a watery death

MICHAEL KENNEDY- Daily Telegraph, 10th May 1986

ON A 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.

* "The Music of E. J. Moeran" by Geoffrey Self (Toccata Press)
"Lonely Waters, the diary of a friendship" by Lionel Hill (Thames Publishing).





©2011 The Worldwide Moeran Database



The symphony will survive because it is an intimate human document but also because it contains some unforgettable passages of nature painting in sound...