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Profile: Cecil Coles

Cecil Coles was a talented promising composer and former Morley tutor when he died during World War One. His work is just one of the pieces featured during the Morley Chamber Orchestra performance in the autumn series of concerts celebrating Morley's 125 year history. Here we profile the man and his life.

Cecil Coles was born in Kirkcudbright in 1888.  He was deeply interested in music from an early age as his earliest surviving orchestral was completed when he was just sixteen.  By 1905 he had graduated as a music student from Edinburgh University.  He read in a newspaper about a composition scholarship at the Royal College of Music and duly applied.  He won the Cherubini Scholarship in 1906, and then moved to London.  He was introduced to Morley College by Miss Nancy Brooke, where she taught wood-carving and kept the orchestral library.  He soon met Gustav Holst and joined the College Orchestra.  Holst wrote of Cecil, ’his genuine love of and talent for music, combined with his never failing geniality, enthusiasm and energy, worked wonders, of that sort, were badly needed’.

Taught at Morley College

In 1908 Coles won the Bucher Scholarship and went to study in Stuttgart, taking Miss Brooke with him.  In 1911 he set off on a walking tour in Switzerland with Holst.  In 1912 he married and took his wife back to Stuttgart.  They had two children, Brooke, named after Nancy Brooke, and Penny Catherine.  In 1913, with the approach of the First World War, Cecil and his wife returned to England, where Cecil toured with the Beecham Opera Company, and taught Elementary Harmony and Sight Singing at Morley. He also deputised for Holst.

In 1915 he signed for overseas service in the 9th London Regiment, Queen Victoria Rifles.  Stationed in France he wrote regularly to Holst.  As Bandmaster he was entitled to the rank of Serjeant.  Bands and music were regarded as important to morale throughout the war, and while band musicians were non-combatants in the sense of firing guns, military musicians were often called upon to work in dangerous roles such as stretcher bearers which involved going to pick up injured soldiers often in the middle of heavy gunfire.

A shell destroyed manuscripts

Cecil continued to write whilst in the trenches, and sent Holst manuscripts whenever possible.  With a lack of lined manuscript paper available at the front, some of these were written on notepaper with manuscript lines hand drawn on it by the composer. During a period of withdrawal, a shell destroyed some of his manuscripts, including parts of his final suite Behind the Lines along with all of his band's instruments.
Cecil Coles was killed on 26th April1918 near the Somme.  He had volunteered to help bring some casualties from a wood, and on their return two of the stretcher-bearers were killed and Coles was mortally wounded. He is buried at Crouy, near Amiens in France. 

Some of his work was published in his lifetime, more has been published recently by Bardic Edition.  New editions of songs and orchestral music are being edited for publication soon. Some of Coles' work has been recorded on a CD called 'Music from behind the lines', available to borrow from the College Library.


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