Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950), or Jack to his friends, was born in Heston on 31st December 1894, the second son of the Rev J W W and Esther Moeran. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Bacton, in the remote Norfolk Fen Country. As a child he learned to play the violin and piano, and made some early compositional efforts while at Uppingham School (works he later destroyed).
In 1913 he enrolled at the Royal College of Music to study piano and composition under Sir Charles Stanford. His studies were cut short by the outbreak of war, and in 1914 he enlisted as a motorcycle despatch rider in the 6th (cyclist) Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment.
On 3rd May 1917, at Bullecourt in France, Moeran received a severe head injury, with shrapnel embedded too close to the brain for removal, and underwent what would now be considered primitive head surgery which involved the fitting of a metal plate into the skull. Unsurprisingly this was to affect him for the rest of his life.
After discharge from the services on a disability pension he returned briefly to teach at Uppingham before returning in 1920 to the music course at the Royal College, staying there under John Ireland. This period, the most active in his creative output, saw a number of important early works, including the String Quartet in A Minor, the First Rhapsody for orchestra, the Piano Trio, the Violin Sonata and a number of works for solo piano. Moeran had also by this time begun collecting folk songs, visiting pubs, especially in his native Norfolk, and noting down the old songs that were still to be heard at the time, something he was to partake in for the rest of his life.
Some of these folksongs Moeran set to his own arrangements, and collections for a variety of solo and assemble vocal settings were to follow for the rest of his life. Of particular interest are the setting for voice and piano of Six Folksongs from Norfolk, Six Suffolk Folksongs and Songs from County Kerry.
By the middle of the 20′s Moeran had struck up a close friendship with Philip Heseltine, better known under his pen-name as the composer Peter Warlock. In 1925, together with the artist Hal Collins, they rented a house in Eynsford, Kent where they were to live together for three years of allegedly wild, drunken anarchy which brought them an assortment of musical and artistic visitors and the occasional attention of the local police. This period also saw an understandable decline in the regularity of Moeran’s musical output. It is also thought that at Eynsford Moeran developed the alcoholism which so often overshadowed his for the rest of his life.
On leaving the house as funds ran dry Moeran began to move towards a stylistic reappraisal which was to see him moving away from the earlier influence of composers such as Delius and Ireland, especially on his use of harmony. The first instrumental works to show signs of this were the Sonata for Two Violins and the String Trio, written during a period of ongoing illness and for the first time created straight onto the page rather than through experimentation at the keyboard, as was the choral cycle Songs of Springtime.
It was also at this time that Moeran began to show a much greater interest in his Irish roots – his father was Dublin-born though raised in England, and Moeran had spent some time in Ireland while serving in the army, but it was not until the 1930′s that Moeran began to relate his compositions away from the Norfolk countryside and towards Ireland, particularly County Kerry in the far south west of the country. He became particularly fond of the small town of Kenmare, and for most of the rest of his life it was to here that here would return for musical inspiration.
The work which was to occupy much of the 1930s had in fact been commissioned and started in 1924 – his Symphony in G Minor. Almost finished in the 20′s, Moeran abandoned work on it, not to resume until 1934, and finally finish on January 24th 1937 in Kerry. The success of this major work seemed to boost Moeran’s confidence, and almost immediately he began work on what has been seen by some as the Symphony’s natural companion, the Violin Concerto. This piece, completed in 1942 after five years, is imbued with Irish spirit and lyricism, and whereas the Symphony is often wracked with gloom and despair, the Violin Concerto seems to offer hope and enlightenment in response.
Once again, however, the country was at war, and one can only assume that the overshadowing of what was Moeran’s finest compositional period has had a lot to do with his later obscurity. As the forties wore on he married the cellist Peers Coetmore and wrote for her a Cello Concerto and Cello Sonata. Other major works of the period include the Sinfonietta, the third Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (the nearest he came to writing a full Piano Concerto), the Fantasy Quartet for Oboes and Strings and the Serenade in G.
But as the decade wore on his health declined. Moeran was wrestling with a second symphony which seemed imminent at several points in time, yet was never completed and later disappeared. The marriage to Peers, never destined to be one of the great romances, was faltering, and his drinking continued. By 1950 he was living in increasingly poor health in Kenmare, worried that his instability would result in being certified insane, unable to concentrate for more than a short time.
On 1st December 1950, during a heavy storm, he was seen to fall from the pier at Kenmare, and was dead on his recovery from the sea. The cause of death would appear to have been a cerebral haemorrhage following a heart attack. He was buried shortly after in Kenmare.