E.J.Moeran in Norfolk
A report in the Eastern
Counties Newspapers for September 1924 reads:
On the programmes of recent concerts
in London, a comparatively unfamiliar name has appeared...to awaken
a good deal of curiosity. To the young composer E.J.Moeran has fallen
the honour of writing a new work for the Norwich Centenary Festival.
We have it on Mr.Moeran’s own authority that Rhapsody
No.2 owes its basis to the Norfolk countryside and people.
‘Jack’ Moeran grew up in the sheltered
atmosphere of a vicarage, his Irish father Joseph having entered
the priesthood like his father before him.Up until this time the
family had been constantly on the move, but now settled in Norfolk,
a natural choice as Jack’s mother Esther was a native of King’s
Lynn, and his grandfather was already installed as Vicar of Bacton.
Joseph was appointed priest in charge to the joint parishes of ‘Salhouse
with Wroxham’ in 1905.
Sunday morning hymns in church provided
Jack with his earliest musical experience. Dressed in his smart
muslin frock the boy would listen attentively, returning home to
(in his own words) ‘invent great chords’ on the piano. At the age
of eight he became a pupil at Suffield Park Prep.School in Cromer,
and in September 1908 was sent away to Uppingham public school.
Here he quickly learnt the violin, joined the orchestra and formed
his own string quartet. The school concert programme for July 1912
records the first performance of a Sonata for Cello and Piano by
the Lorne House pupil Master E. Moeran. Jack learnt to compose simply
by practising it; this accounts for his later mastery of the orchestra.
Folk song collectors had been active
in Norfolk since the turn of the century - Vaughan
Williams in particular had written three rhapsodies based on
tunes from the county. By the time Moeran became aware of the tradation
of "Saturday night frolics" at the local pub, the custom
was already dying out, yet he still succeeded in rescuing some 150
songs from oblivion, moreover preserving something of the original
freshness that was becoming obscured by academic piano accompaniments.
There is a fine set of Six Folksongs
from Norfolk in particular. As Philip
Heseltine [AKA Peter Warlock] observed in 1923:
His familarity with the neighbourhood
gave him facilities which are often denied to the stranger....he
collects these songs from no antiquarian or historical motives,
but because he loves them and the people who sing them. (1)
Cliff House, Bacton, in Norfolk, (built
by Moeran's father) c.1930
CREDIT: copyright Alan Childs: Barry Marsh collection 2000.
And as an old man from Sutton remarked
after a sing-song to which Moeran had brought a visitor from London:
"We were a bit nervous of him; with you, it’s different, of
course - you’re one of us."
Unless he was actually living in
the place and amongst the people from which the music originated,
Jack Moeran could not find the inspiration to compose. His was a
dual ancestry, and even though he was later to produce his greatest
work in the mountain country of Southern Ireland, there are still
constant reminders of the East Anglian county with its wide horizons,
tall church towers and windswept dunes.
River’(1921) and ‘Lonely
Waters’(1931) both speak of their composer’s desire to be ‘at
one’ with nature amidst the Norfolk landscape. The rugged splendour
of the western Irish coast might finish the Symphony
in G minor of 1937, but the North Sea gales sweeping in over
Bacton certainly colour its opening, first conceived there in 1924.
Even as late as 1946 the small village of Rockland St.Mary on the
edge of the Norfolk Broads would see the birth of the Fantasy
In the last few months of his life
Moeran was struggling to complete his Second Symphony, but at the
same time his mind was also contemplating "a piece for strings(a
la Barber)"(2) or "a work of a lighter nature"(3)
for Norwich. One enthusiastic letter makes mention of a "mad
wild Scherzo for orchestra. Denny Island is its title", another
that the piano piece ‘The White
Mountain’ is to form the basis of an extended "Symphonic
What would the future have held?
It is impossible to speculate. On December 1st 1950 the lonely waters
of the Kenmare River claimed the life of one who was described by
the ‘Musical Times’ as having had a great gift for friendship -
his music will always be a mine of interest for seekers after truth
1 - Introductions XX111 : E.J.Moeran
: Music Bulletin 1924
2 - EJM letter to Peers Coetmore, May 30th 1947
3 - EJM letter to Peers Coetmore, July 26th 1949
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