Miniature Essays

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 music.

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 to perform.

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 of affectation.

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 service.

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 London—Lands 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.


"The Bean-flower" taken from the booklet.
Click here to enlarge

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 treatment.

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 years—the 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 Ladmirault—in 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.



 

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This 'Miniature Essay' appeared as a booklet, priced 6d. in 1926, published by Chester. It was almost certainly written by Peter Warlock, but the author and sources are not credited.

 

The essay also appears in the booklet in French!