LSO version conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras
Analysed by Robert Walton
In the first half of the 20th century, the ‘Uncrowned King of Light Music’ was Eric Coates, tunesmith extraordinaire, whose music provided the soundtrack to millions of people’s lives, but many wouldn’t have had a clue who wrote it. Like most instrumental music, much of it remained anonymous, unlike his songs that spoke for themselves. Coates though, was much more than just a master of melody. His brilliant orchestrations were tailor-made for his tunes and conducting them himself meant he had complete control over their interpretation. His marches proved to be the most popular, like Calling All Workers, Knightsbridge March, Television March, and TheDam Busters March.
But some of the most important Coates’ compositions were his lovely laid-back pieces with a romantic or rural flavour. As early as 1915, he had written a suite From TheCountryside. Later on he cornered the ‘millpond’ market, with his calm, unhurried, and peaceful creations. One of the first I heard as a boy was the beautiful intermezzo By The Tamarisk of 1925, used as the signature tune for a 1940s Australian radio programme called “The Junior Naturalist’s Club”. It was inspired by a patch of shrub in front of the composer’s Selsey cottage on the south coast of England. I once spotted a grove of the small trees myself on the sea front at San Sebastian in Spain.
By The Sleepy Lagoon was written in 1930. Selsey has a lot to answer for, because Coates’ most famous composition was inspired by the view on a warm summer’s evening looking across the “lagoon” from the east beach at Selsey towards Bognor Regis. The sea at that time of day is an incredibly deep Pacific blue, but it appeared pink like an enchanted city with the blue of the Downs behind it. Who needs to go halfway around the world for inspiration, when you’ve got everything in your own backyard?
Sleepy Lagoon (as it was later called) was not a purpose-built popular seller like David Rose’s Holiday For Strings. It became one by a series of circumstances. Songwriter Jack Lawrence discovered the piano version and wrote a set of lyrics that Coates thoroughly approved of. The song eventually found its way to bandleader Harry James but in fact the words were never used for his version. In his wildest dreams Eric Coates never expected his By The Sleepy Lagoon (originally described as a Valse Serenade), would turn into a foxtrot let alone achieve international hit status. The day Paul McCartney was born, the number one song on the Hit Parade was Sleepy Lagoon by Harry James, an unprecedented occurrence for an English light orchestral composition.
But let’s return to By The Sleepy Lagoon in its original form for a stereo recording of 1956. This gentlest of melodies must surely be the ultimate in the relaxation department and would easily qualify as one of the best examples of a tranquil tune from a vanished era. No wonder it was chosen as the signature tune for the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs”. For many years the dark brown voice of its creator Roy Plomley intoned over the music “How do you do Ladies and Gentlemen. Our castaway this week is”........
The 4 bar introductory vamp accentuating the second beat, immediately sets the scene, as this most famous string strain surreptitiously seeps in. It’s one of those iconic moments in light music history. Right on cue the goose pimples swing into action with the first of four 10 note leaps from the starting note of middle C in the key of C. You would be forgiven for thinking it might sound strained. Not at all. It floats effortlessly upwards, soft landing on a high E before coming to rest an octave below, cheered on by muted brass. Did you notice extremely subtle trills in bars 2 and 6, showing Coates’ attention to detail? He certainly knew how to create a mood. The next telling moment is in bar 7 when we bask in a gorgeous D9 chord while the brass stay in situ. After the opening jump, things calm down considerably as we meander in a relatively low range in a melody we’re all too familiar with.
The least known part of By The Sleepy Lagoon is the middle section but this natural extension is very much part and parcel of the whole concept and perfectly slots in. However the lagoon constantly beckons and we quickly return to our comfort zone. The last leap brings us back once more into this lovely tune ending in the coda with a mixture of the melody and the opening vamp.
Perhaps it might be a good idea at this point to show you the Lawrence lyrics that Coates loved. But the words weren’t quite all Lawrence’s. The first 5 notes of the song and the words of the title must have been the work of the composer.
“A Sleepy Lagoon, a tropical moon and two on an island”
“A Sleepy Lagoon and two hearts in tune in some lullaby-land”
“The fireflies gleam, reflects in the stream, they sparkle and shimmer”
“A star from on high, falls out of the sky and slowly grows dimmer”
“The leaves from the trees all dance in the breeze and float on the ripples”
“We’re deep in a spell, as nightingales tell of roses and dew”
“The memory of this moment of love will haunt me forever”
“A tropical moon, A Sleepy Lagoon and you!”
Despite those attractive lyrics, Sleepy Lagoon is far better known without them. If you want to hear it sung, feel free go to Google for versions by Doris Day and Dinah Shore. The latter’s honeyed-toned contralto was perfect for the job.
No, I haven’t forgotten the presence of seagulls on the “Desert Island Discs” theme. Thank goodness they were not the new breed of ‘attack’ gulls!
“By The Sleepy Lagoon” LSO available on Guild CD “More Strings In Stereo” (GLCD 5159)
Excellent account of its history and information about it. I am familiar with both the original and the Harry James version.
As for the original, I like to think of it as an interlude or middle movement between two faster ones, as with "The Three Elizabeths'' (in my humble opinion Coates' masterpiece). I would think that there are other faster selections that it could be combined with (such as "London Bridge" which could be the concluding number of a three movement suite) to form a full entity, although I know that many would prefer to keep it in the format that they are familiar with, as a free standing movement.
I am certain that there are other performances besides that by Mackerras that are just as effective in conveying the innate qualities of this piece. But I would like to simply conclude by saying that Bob Walton has here given us one of his finest analyses that I've yet read, and would give it special kudos.