In the third and final part of his series on Scottish composers at war, John Purser examines the life and work of Cecil Coles

THIS being the 11th day of the 11th month, those who love the arts in Scotland should particularly remember Cecil Frederick Gottlieb Coles. He was born at

The Hermitage, Tongland, Kirkcudbright on October 7, 1888, and died of his wounds near the Somme on April 16, 1918. He is buried at Crouy, north-west of Amiens. On his tombstone are the words: “He was a genius before anything else and a hero of the first water.” These words were written of him by his great “chum” in the Battalion, as his friend, the composer Gustav Holst recalled. Coles’ father was a landscape painter and archaeologist, later becoming keeper of Queen Street Museum in Edinburgh. His drawings of stone circles are an important record, some including members of his family.

How young Cecil came to study music composition is one of those near fairytale stories. He had matriculated as a music student at Edinburgh University and was carrying home repaired shoes from the cobbler’s, wrapped in newspaper. He started to read the newspaper and saw an advertisement for a scholarship in composition at the London College of Music for which he duly applied, winning the Cherubini Scholarship in 1906, aged 18. The piece which won him this life-changing opportunity was probably

From the Scottish Highlands, a three-movement orchestral suite which he had started in 1905.

By 1907, Cecil Coles had moved to London where he had to learn to fend for himself. It was not easy and, for his midday lunch, he made do with the smell of the pickles from the local pickle factories. Fortunately, he was taken under the wing of a Miss Nancy Brooke. She ensured that he had an adequate diet and also introduced him to Morley College where she taught woodcarving and kept the orchestral library. There he met Gustav Holst, newly appointed as director in 1907, and Coles also joined the Morley College orchestra in that year.

His work was not yet ready for public appearances, but Holst wrote of Coles that his “genuine love of and talent for music, combined with his never failing geniality, enthusiasm and energy, worked wonders at a time when wonders, of that sort, were badly needed”.

In 1908, Coles won the Bucher Scholarship – administered by Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music – and went to study in Stuttgart. Théophile Bucher had been a friend of the Mackenzie family, and it is likely that Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (principal of the Royal Academy of Music and who had himself studied in Germany) suggested that Coles apply for it.

In any event, it must have been a major stimulus for Coles who was only 20 years of age. Miss Brooke went out with him to make a home, acting as a mother to him. The friendship with Holst continued on a walking tour in Switzerland and Holst wrote that he was “having the biggest rest I’ve had in my life ... and Cecil Coles ist ein ausgezeichnet prachtvoll Führer! The only drawback is that I’m not as young and vigorous as I was ...”

In 1911, Coles’ scholarship was given an unprecedented extension for six months, perhaps in acknowledgement of his Ouverture Die Komödie der Irrungen (The Comedy of Errors), which was composed in Stuttgart that year and performed in Cologne Conservatoire on June 25, 1913.

At the same time, Coles was appointed assistant conductor at the Stuttgart Royal Opera House, giving him the opportunity to rub shoulders with musicians such as Richard Strauss. Some of his works were even performed at the Liederhalle in Stuttgart, which was a considerable honour for such a young foreign composer, and it was there that he set Alfred de Musset’s Les Moissons for voice and piano. Brief and exquisite, it epitomises the concluding lines “A plant bowed low by rain/But radiant with flowers!”

It was presumably at this time also that he wrote the Fünf Skizzen für Klavier published in Magdeburg. They are perfect miniatures: Zum Anfang gently persuasive; Ihr Bild like an innocent song without words; and, after a busy Kleine Etude and ghostly Phantome, concluding with the longing and lonely backward look of Rückblick.

In 1912, Coles married Phoebe Renton in St Saviour’s Church, Brockley Rise, London and brought her back to Germany. However, in 1913, with the approach of the First World War, Cecil and his wife returned to England.

Holst wrote that “he never joined in the ordinary hatred of Germany; he was utterly incapable of hatred under any provocation whatsoever. But he told me that in spite of all the courtesy and kindness he was receiving he found life there impossible”.

In England, Coles toured with the Beecham Opera Company as chorus master and taught elementary harmony and sight-singing at Morley College, also taking over choral and orchestral classes when Holst was on holiday, Holst describing him as “our good friend ... who has so often helped me in the past”. In 1913 Coles’ first child was born and named Brooke after Miss Nancy Brooke, who became his godmother.

IT was at this time that he composed his most important surviving work, Fra Giacomo, a powerful dramatic monologue for voice and orchestra, the revision of which was completed on May 23, 1914. A wronged husband poisons his wife’s priestly confessor who is also her lover. The text is by Robert Buchanan. Nobody comes out of it well, but the drama and psychology of the situation are masterfully realised, with a frightening insight into the darkest aspects of humanity. Did Coles feel some kind of parallel between this and the breakdown of trust between Britain and Germany? The First World War saw an end to those cultural links which had done so much for British musicians – Mackenzie, Lamond, Hopekirk, Coles himself.

For all the xenophobia of those times, there must also have been a sense of deep cultural loss, almost bereavement.

The contesting monarchs were themselves first cousins. Mackenzie had dedicated his greatest work, The Rose of Sharon, to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, Victoria – Kaiser Wilhelm II’s mother. And Mackenzie’s Scottish Concerto, published in Leipzig, was itself a casualty of war: “I see that the Germans are melting down all music plates for bullets ... no doubt by this time the concerto has been re-cast in another form, less musical, but more effective perhaps. You see how this ghastly business touches us all in many queer forms.”

It was to touch Coles only too deeply. In 1915 he signed up for overseas service in the 9th London regiment – Queen Victoria Rifles. Stationed in France, he corresponded regularly with Holst: “I could fill a whole number of the magazine with extracts from his splendid letters. They were always full of bravery and music, of details of impromptu concerts, of his band (he was sergeant bandmaster), of rejoicings over the Morley programmes.”

Alas, the correspondence does not survive. On his last leave from France, Coles spent an evening carol singing at Morley College. In January 1917 he set Robert Browning’s Benediction “Grow old along with me” and in February of that year he wrote the Sorrowful Dance for small orchestra, dedicated: “To my dear wife.”

It was composed at “Southampton Rest Camp 1.2.17.” and rewritten in France May 19, 1917, so he probably missed the birth of his daughter Penny in March 1917. It would not be surprising if these moving works were written with a sense of foreboding: the casualties were horrific and Coles was ready to take his share of risk although he would, “under ordinary circumstances, have remained at the transport lines” as the regimental doctor wrote.

ON one occasion, Coles was saved from straying into enemy lines when Cassiopeia appeared from behind a cloud to show him he was going the wrong – but his luck was not to hold. Throughout what must have been harrowing experiences, Coles was a regular and prized attendant at gramophone record sessions behind the lines, listening to Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert symphonies. These sessions were run by the medical officer, Captain Gourlay, who wrote that he “was never quite happy unless Sergeant Coles was there, as he was the most appreciative of my audience.”

And despite it all, Coles kept composing, including Behind The Lines, at the end of which Coles has written “Feb 4th, 1918 In the Field”. Two months later, aged only 29, he was dead. He had volunteered to help bring in some casualties from a wood, and on their return, two of the stretcher-bearers were killed and Coles was mortally wounded.

Fortunately, Coles appears to have been unaware of the seriousness of his injuries, humming a little Beethoven and asking whether his piano playing would be affected.

The MO wrote to his widow: “I think there can be little doubt that your husband died of shock, in which case he would not suffer any pain.”

One of his regimental mates wrote of him: “Cecil was a genius before anything else, and a hero of the first water. I admired him more than anyone, highly strung and sensitive, but with a fine, firm, noble will, and able to bring it into force at the critical moment.”

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

So wrote Robert Laurence Binyon in For the Fallen – but though he was one of the most talented of the composers who lost their lives in the First World War, few know his music and, unusually, it is only his orchestral music that is available on CD.

There is no published biography of Cecil Coles, but quite a lot of information in the liner notes for the one commercial CD of his music. This is Cecil Coles Music from Behind the Lines, Hyperion CDA67293. This includes his Overture The Comedy of Errors,

The dramatic monologue with orchestra, Fra Giacomo, the Scherzo in A minor, From the Scottish Highlands and Behind the Lines.

The radio programme The Score (BBC Radio Scotland), broadcast on Remembrance Sunday, 1995, was devoted entirely to Coles and included specially commissioned performances of his songs and piano music, and an interview with the composer’s daughter, Penny Catherine Coles. The programme can be accessed at the Scottish Music Centre.

The National Library of Scotland holds all of Coles’ original manuscripts.

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