E. J. MOERAN.
Plate from booklet
IT is the fashion nowadays to discover
genius where dispassionate criticism would acknowledge but
precocious talent. Those who acclaim as masterpieces the works
of youths scarcely out of their teens are apt to overlook
two rather important facts : first, that the infant prodigy
is always with us, the second, that there was a Great War
in Europe from 1914 to 1918. In presenting as a newcomer a
man who has already passed his 3ist year, it is necessary
to bear in mind not only that the war has probably robbed
him of four years of musical thought and activity, but also
that the emotions of active service will have so impressed
themselves upon his mind that they cannot fail to be reflected
in his creative work.
It is also the fashion nowadays to decry
emotional music. In discussions on music between one dilettante
and another, the highest adjective of praise is "amusing".
Consequently it is not surprising to find that the work of
many men who came back seared with the devastating emotions
engendered by the European conflict seems either uninteresting
or unintelligible to audiences accustomed to regard the flippancies
of the Rue Duphot as the most significant utterances of modern
It was not until 1922 that the name of
E. J. Moeran came prominently before the musical public. Yet
Moeran is approximately of the same generation as Goossens,
Bliss, and Honegger. But the war took four years out his of
musical life, and we must bear this fact in mind when considering
his musical development in relation to his contemporaries.
Moeran was born at Isleworth on December
31st, 1894. His mother was an East Anglian, from Norfolk,
and his father an Irishman, and a priest of the Protestant
Church. Young Moeran was brought up in the secluded atmosphere
of an Evangelical household, and at the age of nine he was
sent to a boarding school at Cromer, where he had some violin
lessons, but heard practically no music except in church.
However his harmonic sense began to assert itself at an early
age, and he taught himself to read music at the piano with
the aid of the only music books available in his home, namely
"Hymns A & M" and "The Cathedral Psalter."
At the age of fourteen he was sent to Uppingham, where for
the first time in his life he was able to hear real music;
and it is perhaps not going too far to say that, had it not
been for the kindly, understanding guidance of Robert Sterndale
Bennett, who was, and still is, head music-master at Uppingham,
we should have had no music from the pen of E. J. Moeran.
During his last year at Uppingham, Moeran
formed a school string quartet, and he and his three associates
thus made themselves acquainted with a great deal of classical
chamber music; and it was in this year that he first attempted
composition, the work in question being a sonata for piano
and violoncello in four movements, which took nearly an hour
Apart from his activities at school, Moeran
heard little music. His father was at this time vicar of a
country parish in Norfolk, and visits to the metropolis were
few and far between. But from the lack of looked-for opportunities,
unlooked-for chances often arise. If it was not possible in
the remote, sea-girt village of Bacton, to hear the masterpieces
of Bach and Beethoven, which have been sources of inspiration
to so many men's youth, and of desperation to so many's middle
age, there was at hand a musical stimulus which was destined
to prove, in the case under consideration, far more fruitful
than the influence of any classical master. This was the humble
folk-song, which was sung, night after night, in the local
public house, by the men of the village. It is perfectly true
that the folk-song influence in modern musical compositions
has been overworked. The employment of folksong has become
a cult; and many of those who, from lack of the ability to
invent original themes, employ folk-songs as the basis of
their symphonic works, are men who have never heard an English
folk-song sung in its proper surroundings by those
to whom it has been handed down as an heirloom; and consequently,
the employment of folk-song in the works of such men savours
The extraordinary difference between Moeran's
settings of English folk-songs, and those of any other musician,
save Vaughan Williams, is to be accounted for by the fact
that he alone among folk-song collectors has had the good
fortune to be able to collect songs in a neighbourhood where
he himself was already personally well-known. Most of the
songs were sung by old men, who would certainly not have been
willing to sing to any stranger who might suddenly turn up,
note book in hand, in search of material.
Moeran's collection of folk-songs which have never been noted
by any other collector, totals over a hundred and fifty. Many
of his most interesting and individual works are based upon
the folk-song idiom, and where this is apparent, it should
be borne in mind that the influence is due to first-hand experience,
and not to the prevailing passion which has overtaken so many
composers whose knowledge of folk-song is derived from books.
Meanwhile we have digressed from Moeran's
biography. To resume, in a few words ; he joined the army
in August 1914, as a motor-cyclist despatch rider, was granted
a commission early in the following year, and served as an
officer in the Norfolk regiment. He was wounded in 1917 in
an attack at Bullecourt, and rendered unfit for further active
On his discharge from the army in January
1919 he took up a post as music master at Uppingham; but,
coming to the conclusion that his own musical equipment was
still far from complete, he left the school and came to London
where he took a further course of study with John Ireland
to whom he owes, at least, something of the mastery of technique
and form which is manifest in his published works.
It is remarkable that in spite of the
lateness of his musical awakening, and the handicap of four
and a half years of military service, Moeran should have already
attained the important position he holds in contemporary music
to-day. To those who meet him for the first time, his comparatively
large output may come as a surprise, for it is quite usual
for strangers to spend an hour in his company without suspecting
him of being a musician at all. (He is, incidentally, an expert
motor-cyclist, and is a frequent competitor on long and arduous
trials. In 1922 he was awarded a gold medal for his performance
in the LondonLands End trial of the Motor-Cycling Club.)
His first published work appeared as recently
as 1921 : three piano pieces, the last of which, "At
a horse fair," has something of the exuberance and boisterousness
that are such salient characteristics of his later work. These
were followed by a second book of piano pieces, the inept
title of which, affixed by the publisher without the composer's
sanction, may have proved a set-back to their recognition.
However, this set of pieces deserves to be widely known, two
of them at least, " Windmills" and "Burlesque"
being most brilliant essays, in modern keyboard technique.
But Moeran's pianoforte-writing found
its culminating point in the magnificent "Toccata"
which, from the point of view of pianistic technique, is unsurpassed
by any living British composer. It is a work full of poetry,
in which the vigour of the main theme is contrasted with a
quieter middle-section of rare loveliness.
"Stalham River," a Ballade for
piano, shows yet another aspect of the composer's mind ; in
this music of the quiet landscape of marshy country he displays
his remarkably subtle and original conception of harmonic
Other pianoforte works of importance are
"A Folk-story" and "Rune", pieces which
tell of "old forgotten far-off things and battles long
ago." They reveal the composer in an uncompromisingly
serious mood. On the other hand, "On a May morning"
is as delicate a piece of tone-painting as its title leads
one to expect.
It was in the field of chamber music that
Moeran first won for himself the good opinion of those who
consider him one of the most promising personalities in the
musical world of to-day. The Pianoforte Trio in its original
form dates from 1920, but since that time it has been entirely
re-written, and was first played in its present form at one
of an interesting series of concerts given by Moeran at the
Wigmore Hall, London, in the summer of 1925. It is a work
in four movements, of considerable dimensions, and in it,
for the first time, the composer fully reveals his grasp of
the essentials of musical construction, and his ability to
deal successfully with the larger forms of composition.
His string quartet, however, is a far
more closely-knit work, firmer in structure and more deliberate
in its personal expression. This quartet, and the two orchestral
Rhapsodies, are thoroughly representative of the composer
at his best. All three works are dominated by the influence
of the surroundings in which he passed so many of his most
impressionable yearsthe grey skies and flat misty landscapes
of the Eastern counties. But "cheerfulness is always
breaking through" in the shape of some folk-song or other
sung in convivial company after the day's work is over and
this sense of contrast, always apparent in his work, is one
of the most agreeable features of Moeran's mentality.
The quartet was quickly followed by a
sonata for violin and piano, a work sombre and tragic in character
which provides the greatest possible contrast to the sunny
geniality of the quartet.
It is difficult to estimate success in
relation to orchestral music by British composers. Many a
a work, greeted with apparent enthusiasm at its first performance,
has disappeared immediately afterwards, and is only heard
of again some ten years later, as the result of insistent
propaganda on the part of a small body of supporters. It will
be sufficient to say that Moeran's first Rhapsody (in which,
despite reports to the contrary, no actual folk-tunes are
employed) was composed in 1921, performed in the same year
at a Patron's Fund concert at the Royal College of Music,
repeated by Sir Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth in the following
year, and has since been played at a Queen's Hall Promenade
Concert, and at a Hallé concert in Manchester.
As a song writer Moeran has proved wonderfully
successful. The combination of a free and eminently singable
melodic line clearly derived from the influence of folk-song,
and his rich and subtle vein of harmony leads to the happiest
results in the interpretation of poems both old and new. "The
Bean-flower" (poem by D. L. Sayers), "The merry
month of May" (Dekker), and "Come away, Death "
(Shakespeare) may be cited as particularly choice examples
of his talent in this field; and his arrangements of East
Anglian folk-songs may be set beside the admirable versions
of Breton melodies by Paul Ladmiraultin both cases thoroughly
modern harmonic treatment serves to enhance, rather than to
obscure, the character of the tunes.
Few of the composers of the present day
who can be regarded as first-rate achieved anything very remarkable
before the age of thirty. If one thinks of what Elgar had
written before 1887, Delius before 1893, and Vaughan Williams
before 1902, one sees clearly that any estimate of their ability
made at that early age would have been totally inadequate.
Moeran has behind him, in his thirty-first year, a finer collection
of works than any of these three composers had at the same
age, and one is amply justified in expecting that his talent
will expand during the next ten years no less certainly than
did that of his illustrious predecessors.