Ernest John Moeran
• 1894 — 1950
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Ernest John Moeran was a 19th century English composer. Though his works are not performed often, they provide a wonderful array of colours inspired by Frederick Delius, John Ireland and the grey countryside of England.
Moeran was born in 1894 in Heston but his family moved to Bacton, a remote area in Norfolk Fen Country when he was young. He attended the Uppingham School (1908-12) where music played an important role. There he learned to play the violin and piano at a high level and took part in the school’s chamber music performances. Under the guidance of Robert Sterndale Bennett, grandson of Sir William Bennett, Moeran learned how to critically read and listen to music, particularly the music fromBach to Brahms. During his school years he also made some attempts at composition, but later destroyed them.
Though the music of his contemporaries was completely obscure and of no interest to him, he was introduced by chance to the music ofDelius in 1913. Though he had planned to attend a concert of the Brahms Requiem at St Paul’s Cathedral, the church was full and instead he went to Queen’s Hall where the Delius Piano Concerto was programmed. The concerto fascinated Moeran and opened up his imagination to a whole new world of sound.
In the same year, Moeran entered the Royal College of Music where he studied piano and composition under Sir Charles Stanford. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, for which he was enlisted as a motorcycle dispatch rider in the 6th cyclist Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment. A severe head injury suffered in France in 1917 put an end to his military service: he had received a piece of shrapnel in his head, too close to his brain for removal. Moeran then underwent a dated medical procedure and received a metal plate in his skull. This injury would, unsurprisingly affect him throughout his entire life. Michael Kennedy of theDaily Telegraph wrote in 1986, ‘For 32 years he was a walking casualty, his “alcoholism” was 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’.
After his discharge from the military on disability, Moeran wrote a number of chamber music works while teaching for a short time at the Uppingham School, though his insecurities led him to return to the Royal College of Music in 1920 to study with John Ireland. His studies with John Ireland led to a highly creative period wherein he discovered that the folksong tradition was still alive in Norfolk. He began collecting many folksongs of the region, a hobby he continued until his death.
Many of his major works include the influence of folksong, notably the Violin sonata (1922), String Quartet in A minor (1921), and two rhapsodies for orchestra (1922 and 1924). The First Rhapsody for orchestra uses the folksong in the main theme, as introduced by the bassoon. The quartet, along with the rhapsodies, is greatly influenced by his surroundings, most noticeably the grey skies and flat landscapes. Early works also include the Piano Trio (1920-5) and various solo piano works.
Moeran was an accomplished composer of songs. His Six Folk-songs from Norfolk (1923) represent, according toPeter Warlock, ‘perfect specimens of the English tradition in its purest and most beautiful form’.
Moeran’s interest in his Irish roots increased over time and he became less interested in the Norfolk countryside and more consumed by County Kerry in the southwest of Ireland. He found the small town of Kenmare particularly inspiring and would return often. Throughout most of the 1930s Moeran was engrossed in his Symphony in G minor (1924-37) which had been commissioned in 1924, though he was unable to finish in a timely manner. The work is full of gloom and despair, but its great success led to a newfound confidence, prompting his Violin Concerto (1942), which offers feelings of hope and enlightenment, perhaps providing an answer to the symphony.
The 1940s were marked by great musical productivity, but a poor personal life. Moeran married cellist Peers Coetmore, a doomed marriage filled with unhappiness. For her, he wrote both the Cello Concerto (1945) and Cello Sonata (1947). Around this time he also wrote a Sinfonietta (1944), Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (nearly a piano concerto) (1942-3), Fantasy Quartet for oboes and strings (1946) and the Serenade in G (1948).
In the mid-1920s, Moeran and Warlock developed a close friendship and shared a house, together with artist Hal Collins, from 1925. The three men shared three years of ‘wild, drunken anarchy’ and enjoyed many musical and artistic visitors, along with the occasional visit from the local police. As a result of this out-of-control lifestyle and the development of severe alcoholism, Moeran’s productivity obviously decreased. He eventually left the house for financial reasons
Around this time, he began to rethink his compositional style. The earlier influences of Delius and Ireland faded, most markedly in his use of harmony. Evidence of this change is first noticeable in his Sonata for Two Violins (1930) and his String Trio (1931). Due to an ongoing illness, and therefore much weakness, these works were created directly on paper, and not at the piano. His choral cycleSongs of Springtime (1930) shares this method.
By 1950, Moeran’s health had declined both mentally and physically. His drinking and poor marriage had taken their toll on him and he was found dead after falling from a pier in Kenmare, County Kerry on a stormy night. Though some suspected suicide, or that he was drunk and had fallen in, the official report states that he fell after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, most likely caused from the shrapnel and metal plate in his head. Moeran was buried in Kenmare in 1950.
Performances of Moeran’s music are very few-and-far-between today, though the majority of his instrumental music has been commercially recorded. One major work missing from the recordings however is his Sonata for Two Violins. His vocal music, though superior, has only been sparsely recorded, though this is probably an oversight on the part of many singers, as they are simply unfamiliar with his brilliant song writing. At the time of his death, Moeran was working on a Second Symphony, which indicated another change in style. Unfortunately, only small fragments have survived, not nearly enough to allow another composer to complete his work.
Moeran is one of the forgotten composers of the early 20th century, though his music provides a splendid insight into the English countryside.
Header image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery Other images courtesy of Classic Online and Discogs