Jack, as he was to his friends, was born on the last day of 1894 to an Irish Protestant priest, Joseph Moeran, in the Middlesex town of Heston – shortly afterwards the family moved to Bacton in the Norfolk Fen Country. Moeran’s mother, Esther, was a granddaughter of the enormously wealthy Kentish entrepreneur George Smeed; this family connection is most likely the reason Moeran was able to enjoy a first-rate education at Uppingham School, enriched by instruction in the violin and piano. While at Uppingham Moeran led the second violins of the school Orchestra and started a quartet with fellow students. It was also here that he made his first forays into composition – it is indicative of Moeran’s self-critical nature that he later destroyed these early efforts.
Moeran’s music education under Sir Charles Stanford at the Royal College of Music was put on hold by the First World War, when Moeran enlisted as a motorcycle despatch rider in the 6th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment. In 1917 at Bullecourt, France he suffered a severe head injury, with a piece of shrapnel embedded in his skull. He underwent surgery to have a metal plate fitted into the skull, but the shrapnel was never removed. Unsurprisingly, the injury affected Moeran throughout his life. Moeran was later able to show his prowess as a motorcyclist in 1922 when he was awarded the gold medal for his performance in the London to Land’s End trial of the Motor-Cycling Club.
Moeran returned to his studies at the Royal College in 1920, this time under the instruction of John Ireland. Ireland was a great influence, impressing upon Moeran the importance of counterpoint in writing harmony. This was the most active period of Moeran’s creative output, and it was around this time that he started collecting still-extant folk songs in and around his home in Norfolk. This was an activity that he continued to the end of his life.
By the mid-1920s Moeran had struck up a close friendship with the composer and critic Philip Heseltine, better known by his pen-name Peter Warlock. The pair, with an eccentric Maori artist called Hal Collins, shared a cottage together in the Kentish Village of Eynsford. That there were supposed to be no fewer than 27 pubs within a 4-mile radius of this cottage gives a good indication of the chosen activity of recreation that these friends pursued! This period inevitably took its toll on Moeran’s creative output; it also led Moeran to the alcoholism that was to afflict him for much of the rest of his life.
On leaving this house, and much of the lifestyle of drunken revelry that came with it, Moeran’s composition took a new direction as he began to turn to his Irish heritage for musical inspiration. During the 30s Moeran put the finishing touches to perhaps his most significant work: the Symphony in G Minor, a work he first began in 1924. This work was first played by the Halle Orchestra in 1938, conducted by Leslie Heward. Moeran responded to the success of this work with his Violin Concerto in 1942.
Moeran spent much of his remaining years in his home in Kenmare, Ireland. He married the cellist Peers Coetmore, for whom he wrote a Concerto and a Sonata. The main focus of his final years was his Second Symphony, a work he never completed. Suffering from ailing health and still a heavy drinker, Moeran was seen to fall from the pier at Kenmare in the midst of a heavy December storm. The inquest into his death found that he had suffered from a heart attack and subsequently fell into the Kenmare river. Fragments of Moeran’s Second Symphony survive, and were ‘completed’ by the conductor Martin Yates, who conducted a recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 2011.
Here is a recording of Leslie Heward conducting a depleted Halle Orchestra playing Moeran’s Symphony in G Minor during the Second World War in 1942:
Performance by the LSO:
1940 – Symphony in G Minor; Heathcote Statham, conductor