The music of E.J. Moeran this weekend – taking a small break from our festival of Americana (back next week . . .I promise). A performance, and I suspect the radio premier performance of his Serenade in G for Orchestra, premiered in 1948. Although there are no dates of exactly when this broadcast aired, it’s fairly certain that 1948 is the year of this broadcast. First, 1948 was the year it had changed its name from The National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland to Radio Eireann Symphony (later RTÉ) and that Jean Martinon was a frequent conductor of the orchestra from 1946 until Milan Horvath became Music Director in 1953. So I think it’s safe to say this was the first broadcast performance of this work. Perhaps RTÉ can shed some light if they’ve kept paperwork.
Ernest John (E.J.) Moeran was born in Heston (now in the London Borough of Hounslow), the son of the Rev Joseph William Wright Moeran, an Irish-born clergyman, and his wife Ada Esther (born Whall). The family moved around for several years as his father was appointed to various parishes but they eventually settled in Bacton, on the coast of Norfolk.
Moeran studied the violin and the piano as a child. He was educated from an early age at home, by a governess. At the age of ten, he was sent to Suffield Park Preparatory School in Cromer, north Norfolk. In 1908, he was enrolled at Uppingham School where he spent the next five years. He was taught music by the director Robert Sterndale Bennett (grandson of Sir William Sterndale Bennett), who greatly encouraged his talents. On leaving Uppingham in 1913, he studied piano and composition at the Royal College of Music with Charles Villiers Stanford. He was also a member of the prestigious Oxford & Cambridge Musical Club.
His first mature compositions, songs and chamber music, date from this time. He also began collecting and arranging folk music of Norfolk and other regions. He collected about 150 folk songs in Norfolk and Suffolk. His preferred method was to sit in a country pub and wait until an old man started singing. He noted the song down and then asked for more. According to the biography The Music of E. J. Moeran by Geoffrey Self (1986), he spent time living with gypsies, but no further details are available. He spent some time after the war living at Kington, Herefordshire.
By the mid-1920s, Moeran had become close friends with Peter Warlock and they lived for some years in Eynsford, Kent, notorious among the locals for their frequent drunken revelry. For the rest of his life, Moeran had problems with alcohol, later joined by mental instability. After Warlock’s death in 1930, Moeran became interested in his Irish roots and began spending much of his time in Kenmare, County Kerry.
As a person, E. J. Moeran was greatly influenced by a number of people. However, it was the time spent with Peter Warlock in Eynsford that had the greatest impact on his life. While Warlock was seemingly capable of drinking alcohol to excess without any apparent long-term effects, Moeran developed a dependency which handicapped him for the remainder of his life. His later problems have been attributed to his war wound to the head, but this is incorrect. By 1930, Moeran had become an alcoholic.
Although English and middle-class, Moeran was at ease in a bar surrounded by local characters from local farms. Indeed, until 2007, “Moeran’s Bar” at the hotel in Kenmare where he lived was named after him. He was looked on with affection by all who knew him, and his gauche, bumbling personality belied a very sharp-witted character who was quick to learn and take up new approaches to music. He also had an encyclopedic knowledge of trains and train timetables.
He married the cellist Peers Coetmore on 26 July 1945. Although the marriage was not entirely happy, it inspired two of Moeran’s finest late works, the Cello Concerto and Cello Sonata.
He died suddenly in 1950, probably from a cerebral hemorrhage, in Kenmare at the age of 55. He was found in the Kenmare River and it was at first assumed he had drowned. However, an inquest later established that he had died before falling into the water.
Interest in Moeran’s music has resurfaced in recent years, although much of it is still unknown to most listeners. His Serenade has been recorded several times over the years, so it’s not that much of a stranger to audiences.
Whether or not you are familiar with his music, E.J. Moeran is a figure worth a look at and listen to – it’s a good addition to the library.