Cecil Frederick Gottlieb Coles, musician, composer and hero, was born on the 7th of October, 1888.
Cecil Frederick Gottlieb Coles was an extraordinarily gifted young musician. He was one of Scotland’s most talented pre- First World War composers, yet few people will know anything about him, even if they are old enough to remember him. Sadly, there aren’t too many of those ‘old uns’ left to remember. Sadly, too, Cecil Coles long ago ‘went west’. Coles, a good friend of composer Gustav Holst and one time assistant conductor at the Stuttgart Royal Opera House, died in France in 1918. Holst’s deeply moving ‘Ode to Death’ was dedicated to “Cecil Coles and the fallen” – Coles alone being named. Puir Cecil was weeded out along with many of his generation in the flower of their youth, without realising his potential as a composer. In July, 1914, Coles was invited by Henry Wood, founder of the Proms, to conduct his dramatic cantata ‘Fra Giacomo’ in the Queen’s Hall. Until 2002, that concert was probably the last time any of Coles’ music was performed by an orchestra.
Fortunately for lovers of classical music in the 21st Century, Coles’ music is once again able to be performed. On a momentous occasion in 2002, several of his compositions, and fragments of others, were recorded by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. More importantly, the recording was released on compact disc for everyone’s amazement, enjoyment and admiration. As reported at the time, it was thanks to the persistence and research of his daughter, Penny Catherine Coles, that Cecil Coles’ manuscripts were located at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh and ultimately deposited at the National Library of Scotland. In Scotland, his music was painstakingly pieced together and the result was the first ever commercial recording of Coles’ compositions. In the words of the conductor, Martyn Brabbins, it was “a most exciting project, musically, socially and historically.” As poignant as some of the music is the fact that some of Coles’ manuscripts were pocked by shrapnel, and still stained with blood and the mud of the Somme.
Reviews of the CD, entitled ‘Music from behind the lines’ brought universal accolades. According to The Independent in 2002, “Coles emerges as one of the great lost hopes of British music” and Classic FM Magazine wrote that his works “show the power and intensity of a major talent.” HMV Choice said that his music was “touched by post-echoes of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Wagner” yet spoke “unmistakably in its own accent.” Praise indeed. Perhaps the most striking piece on the disc is ‘Behind the Lines’, which was composed in France as is indicated on the faded manuscript – ‘Feb 4th 1918, In the Field’. The first movement provides a sketch of the pastoral landscape of northern French, far removed from the devastation of war; the second suggests the heroic imagery of a military funeral procession.
Cecil Frederick Gottlieb Coles was born in Kirkcudbright on the 7th of October, 1888. One day, the family moved to Edinburgh, where Cecil first attended Daniel Stewart’s College. Later, in 1899, he went to school at George Watson’s College and then, in 1905, on to Edinburgh University. Cecil Coles was involved in music from an early age and by the time he was sixteen, he had already composed his first orchestral work, a Concert Overture in E minor, including ‘The Nocturne’ a duet for piano. In 1906, Coles applied for and won the Cherubini Scholarship to study composition at the London College of Music. According to John Purser, who contributed the sleeve notes for the Hyperion Records CD, Coles possibly won his scholarship with the score of ‘From the Scottish Highlands’, which was a three movement orchestral suite that he had worked on from 1905.
In London, in 1907, Coles went to Morley College, the newly formed educational college for workers, where he met the newly appointed Director of Music, Gustav Holst, who was to become a lifelong friend. That same year, Coles also joined the Morley College Orchestra and composed ‘In the Cathedral’ a Reverie for string orchestra and piano or harp. Again, according to Purser’s sleeve notes, “it is based upon a transposition of the musical motif produced by the initial letters of his full name” – CFGC.
In 1908, Coles won the Théophile Bucher Scholarship, administered by the Reid School of Music, and went to study at the Stuttgart Conservatory. Some of his early compositions were first performed in Stuttgart and, in 1911, he gained an unprecedented six months’ extension to the scholarship, during which he composed his ‘Ouverture die Komödie der Irrungen’ (‘The Comedy of Errors’), which was performed later in Cologne Conservatoire, on the 25th of June, 1913, shortly before Coles returned to England. However, prior to that, Coles was appointed assistant conductor at the Stuttgart Royal Opera House, which further extended his soujourn in Germany. During his time in Stuttgart, Coles became organist and choirmaster at St. Katherine’s and some of his works were performed at the Liederhalle. He was also able to hob-nob with the likes of Richard Strauss, which has to have been a big deal for a wee laddie frae Kirkcudbright.
In 1913 with the First World War approaching, Coles returned to England, because as Holst later recalled, “[Cecil] told me that in spite of all the courtesy and kindness he was receiving he found life there impossible.” Coles found work as chorus master, touring with the Beecham Opera Company, before going back to Morley College to teach elementary harmony and sight-singing. It was whilst at Morley for the second time that Coles composed his most important surviving work, ‘Fra Giacomo’, a powerful dramatic monologue for voice and orchestra, which was completed on the 23rd of May. 1914.
In 1915, Coles signed up for overseas service in the 9th London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles), for which he more than ‘his bit’ as a stretcher bearer in Flanders. Undaunted by the conditions, Sergeant Bandmaster Coles and his Band gave impromptu concerts for the troops and, throughout, he continued to compose and send manuscripts back to Holst. Apart from ‘Behind the Lines’ he wrote the ‘Sorrowful Dance’, dedicated to his wife and completed in France on the 19th of May, 1917.
Cecil Frederick Gottlieb Coles died near the Somme on the 26th of April, 1918, during a heroic attempt to bring in some casualties from a wood, for which he had volunteered. On the way back, Coles was mortally wounded by a German sniper. Coles was buried at Crouy, north-west of Amiens and on his tombstone is inscribed, “He was a genius before anything else and a hero of the first water.”