Eric Coates

The Dambusters Theme

Eric Coates (1886-1957)

Eric Coates showed musical ability from an early age, and as a boy received violin lessons and instruction in music theory. He later progressed to the viola and played both instruments in orchestras including under the batons of both Henry Wood and Sir Thomas Beecham. Among his best-known compositions are the London Suite (1933), The Three Elizabeth’s (1944). Unlike so many British light music giants - Sullivan, German, Haydn Wood, bath, Alfred Reynolds and so on - he completed no operettas or musical comedies.

He came to films late in life with the title march for The Dam Busters in 1954 (Leighton Lucas is credited with much of the music for that film, though Coates' march recurs at times during the screening), following this not long before he died with the score for a film about the post-war R.A.F., High Flight (1957). Both films, yielded fine concert marches; The Dam Busters is possibly his best known composition - countless people who have never heard of Coates know this by its title. Coates' genius was exercised almost entirely in 160-odd songs, nearly all - apart from a few settings of Shakespeare and some "serious" poets - of the balled type and in orchestral music. He was himself an orchestral musician, playing viola for many years in the Queen's Hall Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood.


The "Dambusters" story of the bouncing bomb was very British and patriotic, and Coates was well-known for his marches. The film makers were advised of Coates dislike of film scoring, so they decided to ask him instead for such a march. When Coates' publisher conveyed this request to the composer, Coates replied that he had finished just such a march the previous day. The march lying on Coates desk was therefore named "The Dambusters March", and Leighton Lucas was hired to weave this into the film's score.


Coates has been described as the King of British Light Music and indeed, unlike Hubert Bath, Haydn Wood and Montague Phillips, not to mention Sullivan and German, he did not aspire to compose symphonic music
Coates' music has survived better than most, the doldrums into which British light music was plagued for some thirty years and from which it is hopefully beginning to emerge. Nearly half a century ago a record dealer complained to me, that "Coates´ music always sounds the same". What I think he meant is that it is thoroughly characteristic, not merely pleasant and anonymous. Characteristic music usually survives.

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