I cannot recall any case that parallels the dramatic and poignant discovery of Cecil Coles (1888-1918), the Scottish composer who vanished without a trace from the musical world despite his friendship with Gustav Holst and the critical acclaim that followed performances of his music prior to the Great War. Like George Butterworth, Frederic Kelly, Ernest Farrar and Denis Browne, Coles died in the Great War but unlike them he had no committed champions to keep his name alive and his music before the public. Now, 84 years after his death, his star is rising thanks to the combined efforts of his daughter, Penny Catherine Coles, who never knew her father, conductor Martyn Brabbins and Ted Perry at Hyperion Records.
Brabbins, who completed the orchestration of one of the two surviving movements of the title composition Behind the Lines, believes that Coles "was clearly a huge talent cut down in its prime". Brabbins, the BBC SSO and soloists Sarah Fox and Paul Whelan serve Coles very well in this revealing premiere recording.
While it might be easy to compare him with the composers whose influences are apparent in his music - Elgar, Wagner, Mahler, Brahms and others - I find such comparisons a bit unfair. Coles was a young man when he died, only 29. The amount of music he left is small and much of it is the work of a developing composer who did not have the time he needed to find a voice that was fully his own. This in no way diminishes his achievement which is quite remarkable given that some of the music on this CD dates from his teens. Consider the music that Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst composed at the ages of 17, 21, 23, 26 and 29, measure their musical growth, look at the influences and opportunities that helped them shape their work and find their own voices. What would the legacy of each be if he had died at 29?
Coles was a passionate man with a gift for dramatic expression and scene painting, a musical explorer who embarked on an adventure each time he put notes on paper. He absorbed sensations and ideas and observed and captured beauty with the confidence, daring and purpose of a gifted and determined young man poised to soar. He was essentially a poet, dramatist and painter working in the medium of music. His profound poetic sensibility drove his major gift for writing vocal works. He used an orchestral palette of wide range, depth and nuance to paint evocative scenes and portray human drama.
In early works like the three-movement From the Scottish Highlands, a work he began at 17, Coles, the observer, renders an impression of landscape, love and something darker, more elusive and mysterious in the beautiful but lonely Highlands.
In the Four Verlaine Songs we have the first hint of an opera composer in the making. He sets scenes, contrasts moods and casts words to powerful effect with the orchestra surging and swelling as a sumptuous equal partner to create four brief episodes of a mini-drama.
The Scherzo and Overture: The Comedy of Errors are also early works dating from Coles' twenty-first and twenty-third years. The overture containsa "broad spectrum of emotions" which Coles expresses with confidence, warmth, vigour, playfulness and, at times, majesty. TheScherzo, possibly conceived as a movement for a symphony, stands on its own as a work that sustains its momentum and remains dynamic from beginning to end.
Fra Giacomo, a monologue or scena, for baritone and orchestra, is an intense and masterful work bathed in a chiaroscuro of sound and mood that is both tender and chilling. It is a dark psychological tale of infidelity, jealousy, murder and revenge, which the 25-year-old Coles handles with insight and sensitivity. Coles was in full control of his orchestral palette and he used it to dramatic effect. There are many beautiful, moving and tense moments in Fra Giacomo as Coles musically juxtaposes the character's thoughts and actions to achieve exactly the right effect and emotional response.
Behind the Lines, the title work, concludes this superb introduction to Coles. It is half of the full work that Coles composed and scored while he was "In the Field" of war. He carried the manuscript with him everywhere and as a result lost the two inner movements in the shelling. On the surviving mud and blood stained title page, he lists all four movements: "Estaminet du Carrefour", "The Wayside Shrine", "Rumours" and "Cortège". What makes this work remarkable is the fact the "Estaminet du Carrefour" and "Cortege" are the musical equivalent of today's live coverage of an event. Coles did not live long enough to complete Behind the Lines. He died on 26 April 1918 of wounds received when he volunteered to bring in casualties from a wood.
A genius? Yes, I think so. A great loss to music? Absolutely.