Obituary - The Times - December 4th 1950

 

MR. E. J. MOERAN


A MODERNIST WITH HIS ROOTS IN THE PAST

Mr. E. J. Moeran, whose body was found in the River Kenmare, County Kerry, on Saturday, was a composer who, if a nationalist school had arisen in England after our musical emancipation from the Continent, would have been one of its prominent members, since his style is basically founded, like that of Vaughan Williams, on English folk song.

There is, however, an Irish element in his work derived partly from heredity - his father came from Cork - and partly from consequent gravitation of taste to Ireland, which took him here for visits, got him an Irish wife in Miss Peers Coetmore, the 'cellist, and sometimes flavoured his music with the idiom of Irish folk song. Other influences had a fertilizing effect on his development, the English Elizabethans and Delius. His individuality was sufficiently sturdy to absorb them all and to allow him, when he so wished, as in the choral suites "Songs of Springtime" and "Phillis [sic] and Corydon,"* to use his predecessors consciously as starting points for his own work without fear of compromising his originality. He was thus a traditionalist without being academic and a modernist, freely using twentieth-century harmony, with his roots securely grounded in the past.

Ernest John Moeran was born on December 31st,1894, at Osterley, near London, the son of a clergyman who held a living in Norfolk, and was educated at Uppingham and the Royal College of Music. He served in the 1914-18 war and afterwards discarded most of what he had previously composed and went to John Ireland for some teaching. He began to collect folk-songs in East Anglia in 1920: subsequently he lived in London, in Herefordshire, and more recently, since his marriage in 1945, in Ireland. Here, too, he collected folk-songs and only last week a selection from a larger collection garnered intermittently from County Kerry between 1934 and 1948 was published.

When he settled down to composition he began modestly with small forms for orchestra (two rhapsodies and the small pieces "Whythorne's Shadow" and "Lonely Waters") and chamber music (a string quartet, a sonata for two violins, and an engaging string trio, which has been recorded). He also wrote a number of piano pieces and songs (notably two cycles to words of Housman and James Joyce). But in the thirties he turned to the larger forms of instrumental composition, producing his G minor symphony in 1937 and following it with concertos for violin, cello and piano (this last strictly a rhapsody in one movement) during the next 10 years. The Sinfonietta, perhaps his most approachable work, though there is nothing forbidding in any of it, belongs to the same decade, as does an Overture for a Masque commissioned by Ensa.

A sonata for cello and piano, like the cello concerto, was a product of his marriage in 1945 and serves to summarize his place in the English renaissance: he was a composer who nourished himself on the various vocal traditions and was able to transform his natural vocal idiom into instrumental terms to the great profit of his orchestral and chamber music: he wrote congenially for piano: he was a miniaturist who could, and did, handle the larger forms successfully.

(4/12/50)

 

*The work is actually entitled "Phyllida and Corydon"

 

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"He was a traditionalist without being academic and a modernist, freely using twentieth-century harmony, with his roots securely grounded in the past"