Although he was born in the country in a village near Nottingham, Coates spent a large part of his later life in London. He began to learn the violin at the age of six. In 1906 he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London where he studied the viola and composition. During this time he gained valuable experience as an orchestral player. In 1909 his Four Old English Songs were performed under Henry Wood at the Proms. In 1910 he joined the viola section of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and within two years was their principal viola.
His music is very English in that the tunes are memorable, the rhythms are foot-tapping and the orchestration is clear. Coates experienced having to play some very dull viola parts in orchestras and, as a result, was very keen to provide every instrument with an interesting part in his own compositions. With the advent of radio broadcasts, his light classical style of music began to reach a wider audience and became very popular.
The London Suite, which he originally called London Everyday, was the first work to bring him international recognition. Its popularity came mostly from the Knightsbridge March which was used by the BBC as the signature tune for the Saturday night show In Town Tonight which ran for twenty seven years. The London Suite was written during the autumn and early winter of 1932 and was inspired by the views from his top floor apartment in Baker Street. There are three movements.
The first movement, Covent Garden, uses the folk song, Cherry Ripe, presumably to suggest the cries of the street sellers. This movement is subtitled Tarantella but it is only a tarantella in that it is written in 6/8 time. It is a very lively movement conveying some of the high cockney spirit and general hustle and bustle of the market.
Westminster, subtitled Meditation, has a lovely opening chord sequence played by the strings, and woodwind introduces the main theme which is taken over by the solo cello. This is followed by a more pressing idea played by the violins and horns building to a climax before the tune returns this time played by all the strings.
The Knightsbridge march has two cleverly orchestrated main themes, one a strong fanfare figure of street cries and the second representing traffic noise. Eric Coates said, “It is extraordinary the way in which the Knightsbridge March never fails to rouse the dullest of audiences. I cannot understand the reason for it, but over and over again, when I have been conducting it in public, both in this country and abroad, the moment the double-basses begin the reiterated quaver beats at the opening I can feel a sensation of excited anticipation coming from the audience and striking me in the back of the head”.
The London Suite ended up being so successful that Coates wrote a sequel three years later in 1936 called the London Again Suite in which the three movements entitled Oxford Street, Langham Place and Mayfair.
Other popular pieces he wrote include The Dam Busters March, Calling all Workers, Music Everywhere and the Three Elizabeths Suite, but it was the London Suite more than any other work that made his name.