John Coates (tenor)

John Coates (tenor)

John Coates (b Girlington, Bradford June 29, 1865, d. Northwood, August 16, 1941) was a leading English tenor, who sang in opera and oratorio and on the concert platform.

Training and career as baritone

Coates came of a musical family on both sides, through many generations. He attended Bradford Grammar School, where Frederick Delius was his (slightly younger) contemporary. [T. Beecham, "Frederick Delius" (Hutchinson, London 1959), 18.] His early singing experience came as a chorister in a church choir (under his father's direction), where he learnt the importance of accent in singing from the performance of the Gregorian chant. He studied in Yorkshire under J G Walton, Robert Burton, and Dr J C Bridge, in London under W Shakespeare and T A Wallworth, and in Paris under Jacques Bouhy. [A. Eaglefield-Hull, "A Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians" (Dent, London 1924).] He began singing as a baritone, and first appeared as Valentin in Gounod's "Faust" as an amateur, with the Carl Rosa company in Manchester and Liverpool. After further training, he was engaged by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1894 on tour. He then created the role of Baron van den Berg in "Mirette (opera)" with D'Oyly Carte at the Savoy Theatre, followed by more touring, and left the company in 1895. [ Information about Coates' career from the WhoWasWho in the D'Oyly Carte website] ] Coates then sang in Edwardian musical comedies in London and on tour in the United States. [Eaglefield-Hull 1924.] He also introduced Arthur Sullivan's song, "The Absent-Minded Beggar" at the Alhambra Theatre in 1899.

1900-1916 in opera and touring

In the later 1890s John Coates left the stage for a medical operation on his vocal cords and further study, [M. Scott, "The Record of Singing II" (Duckworth, London 1979), 171.] and reappeared as a tenor in light opera in 1899-1900 at the Globe Theatre, London. He first appeared at the Globe Theatre in "The Gay Pretenders" in November 1900 and then at Covent Garden Opera House to create the role of Claudio in Charles Villiers Stanford's four-act opera "Much Ado About Nothing" in 1901. [Eaglefield-Hull 1924; G. Davidson, "Opera Biographies" (Werner Laurie, London 1955), 71-73).] Here he was in enthusiastic company with Marie Brema (Beatrice), David Bispham (Benedick), Suzanne Adams (Hero), Pol Plancon and Putnam Griswold, though the press did not much appreciate the value of the work or their efforts. [D. Bispham, "A Quaker Singer's Recollections" (Macmillan, New York 1920), 294.] This was followed by Gounod's "Faust", this time in the title role. That year he also appeared in the Gurzenich's Concerts and Opera at Cologne, and at Leipzig.

Coates became one of the most popular festival singers in England, singing at the triennial Leeds Festival in 1901 and performing Elgar's "Dream of Gerontius" at Worcester in 1902, followed by numerous other Elgar works. In 1902 he was at the Berlin and Hanover Royal Opera Houses, and in 1906 at Dresden, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Mannheim, at Paris, and in the Cincinnati May Festival. [Eaglefield-Hull 1924.] He sang for the English seasons of the Moody-Manners Company, Covent Garden in 1907 and 1908. [Davidson 1955.] He was in the May 1908 premiere (concert) performance of Ethel Smyth's "The Wreckers" with Blanche Marchesi under Artur Nikisch at the Queen's Hall, [Elkin 1944, 88.] and in the Thomas Beecham production at His Majesty's a year later. He appeared with the Carl Rosa company in 1909. He was a successful London Don Jose in Bizet's Carmen. [cf also Scott 1979, 171.] He was with the Beecham Company for the spring, summer and winter seasons of 1910, in which the brilliant production of Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffman" owed its success mainly to him, and he also appeared in a very romantic interpretation of Pedro in Eugen d'Albert's "Tiefland". [Davidson 1955.] In 1911-13 he toured with the Quinlan Opera Company in provincial England, Australia and South Africa. [Eaglefield-Hull 1924.]

Coates was considered among the finest of English Wagnerian tenors, especially as Siegfried and Tristan. Before the first world war he appeared in London as Lohengrin, Tannhauser and Tristan. He sang often in Wagner concerts and appeared as Parsifal in concert performances of the opera. He sang Lohengrin at Cologne, and in 1911 performed the Siegfrieds of both Siegfried and Gotterdammerung for the Denhof company under Beecham, opposite the Wotan of Frederic Austin. [Davidson 1955; cf T. Beecham, "A Mingled Chime" (Hutchinson, London 1944).]

1901-1916 in Festival and oratorio

1901 also saw John Coates' first English Festival engagement, at Leeds, and he was thereafter in all the chief English festivals, notably at Worcester, Brighton and Norwich, and at The Crystal Palace. [Eaglefield-Hull 1924; Scott 1979, 171.] In November 1900 he appeared for Henry J. Wood in the Arthur Sullivan Memorial Concert at Queen's Hall in "The Golden Legend", with Lillian Blauvelt, Louise Kirkby Lunn and David Ffrangçon-Davies. [H. J. Wood, "My Life of Music" (Gollancz, London 1946 edn), 155.]

He was above all admired in "The Dream of Gerontius" (Elgar), in which he and Gervase Elwes held foremost place in public esteem. In the 1902 Sheffield Festival he sang Gerontius under Elgar's baton with Marie Brema and Ffrangçon-Davies, and with the same soloists under Henry J. Wood at the Queen's Hall, with the London Choral Society, in February 1904. [R. Elkin, "Queen's Hall 1893-1941" (Rider, London 1944), 64.] He was chosen to appear at the Festival of Elgar's music under Hans Richter at Covent Garden, performing "Gerontius" on March 14, 1904 with Kirkby Lunn and Ffrangçon-Davies, and with them, Agnes Nicholls, Kennerley Rumford and Andrew Black in "The Apostles" on March 15. [Percy M. Young, "Letters of Edward Elgar" (Geoffrey Bles, London 1956), 131-132.]

Elgar, writing to Frank Schuster in 1905, wanted to hear Coates perform the '3 Holy Kings' scene from Wolfrum's "Weihnachtsmysterium". [Young 1955, 143.] "Gerontius" was performed with the 1904 line-up under Henry Wood's direction in his 1906 season. [Wood 1946, 205.] Then Frederic Austin was "Priest" and "Angel of the Agony" to Coates's "Soul" at the Festivals of Southport (1906) and Birmingham (1909) and at Manchester (1908). [M. Lee-Browne, "Nothing so charming as Musick!" (Thames, London 1999), 38.] In 1907, in correspondence, Elgar wrote of him: 'The Arch-chanter John was the greatest success and a joy to see.' [Young 1955, 173.]

As Michael Scott (who calls him 'one of the finest English singers on record') notes, his repertoire was very wide-ranging and included Handel's "Messiah" and "Belshazzar", Mendelssohn's "St Paul" and "Elijah", Bach's "St Matthew Passion", Elgar's "King Olaf" and Saint-Saens's "The Promised Land". [M. Scott, "The Record of Singing II" (Duckworth, London 1979), 170-173.] John Coates and Gervase Elwes were great friends, and Coates stood in for an indisposed Elwes on (at least) one occasion at Gloucester. [W. & E. Elwes, "Gervase Elwes, The Story of his Life" (Grayson and Grayson, London 1935), 200-201.] On another occasion, at Worcester in 1911, Elwes (a Roman Catholic) was booked to sing "Gerontius", but upon being told that the name of Mary Mother of God must be excluded from the text (to sing, 'Jesu, pray for me' instead of 'Mary' etc, and with other absurd substitutions and cuts) on the insistence of the Dean and Chapter, he refused to perform, and Coates was called in to replace him. [Elwes 1935, 210-212.] Coates performed the Bach "Mass in B minor" in the April Festival of 1915 at Queen's Hall, under Henri Verbrugghen. [Elkin 1944, 77.]

War service and later career

He then saw four years' war service in France as a Captain in the Yorkshire Regiment, 1916-1919. [Eaglefield-Hull 1924; Davidson 1955.] In March 1919 he signalized his return to music by the first of a long series of English Song recitals, with Anthony Bernard at the piano, at the Queen's Hall. His programmes, his enjoyment of the work, his diction and characterization were intensely admired in them. [R. Elkin 1944, 115.]

In 1921 he appeared as Don Jose and as Lohengrin for the Carl Rosa at Covent Garden, but thereafter devoted most of his efforts to concert performance. [Scott 1979, 171.] In 1921 he sang Gerontius at the memorial meeting for Gervase Elwes at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Choral Society. [Elwes 1935, 276-277.] (He sang wonderfully, according to the "Sunday Times", a courageous thing to do since in his own words he found the death of Elwes 'too shocking, too staggering to contemplate. It has affected me to the very depths of my nature... it brought me to my knees.') [Ibid. 276-277, 282.] From 1920 he began to specialise in song-recitals, of which he gave several each year, favouring all-English performances and championing English composers, but drawing from the repertoire of German and French songs also. [Scott 1979, 171-172.] In 1922 Roger Quilter, who had written much for Elwes and worked closely with him, dedicated his 'Morning song' (Thomas Heywood) to Coates, one of his most vibrant and characteristic miniatures, though Coates did not give the first performance of it. [V. Langfield, "Roger Quilter - His Life and Music" (Boydell, Woodbridge 2002), 66, 148.]

During the 1920 Coates continued to tour overseas energetically. In 1925 he made his only extended tour of North America including Canada. For this his usual accompanist, Berkeley Mason, was not available, and instead he found Gerald Moore, then a young accompanist at the beginning of his career. [The following section is derived from G. Moore, "Am I too Loud?" (Hamish Hamilton, London 1962), Chapter 4.] Moore had often heard Coates' recitals at Chelsea Town Hall, but it was through Peter Dawson (with whom Moore had toured) that the contact came. Once the contact was made, Moore became Coates's sole accompanist for four or five years. Moore devotes a chapter of his memoirs to Coates, whom he found a hard taskmaster, but who transformed him from a mediocre accompanist to a full realisation of the artistic duties and possibilities of that role, the necessity of being a full participant in every living nuance and accent of the music. This great musician considered that John Coates had laid the groundwork of whatever was truly excellent in his work. Coates told him the American tour would 'kill or cure' him, and considered the result a 'cure'.

The Coates-Moore partnership eventually dissolved over rehearsal fees, though any cracks in the friendship were repaired by 1929. Like Sims Reeves and Edward Lloyd, John Coates had a famously protective wife. Moore refers to Coates' home life as serene, with an adorable wife, sons and daughters, but thought, despite Coates's good humour, he was not a happy man because he was too much of a worrier. Coates lost a good deal of money in a legal case he brought against the Performing Rights Society, in which he argued that he should not have to pay a royalty to perform music in public which had been brought to him in manuscript, and which therefore, by agreeing to sing it, Coates had encouraged the publishers to publish. He lost the case, and it preyed on his mind for long after, though he refused offers of financial support from other singers. In his last years he thought of going back on the stage and started to slim, but was seized with anaemia and became permanently confined to bed, frustrated at being unable to assist his country as the war took hold. In July 1940 Gerald Moore presented a half-hour broadcast in tribute to their work together, and received a last letter from him in friendship and gratitude.


Thomas Beecham remarked of him, 'Coates was among the half-dozen most interesting artistic personalities of the time in England -scrupulous, fastidious and conscientious in all that he attempted. His appearance on the stage was noble and animated, and his voice, although of moderate power, was flexible and expressive. His diction was admirable and his singing of English an unalloyed pleasure to the ear.' [Davidson 1955, 72.]

In 1924 Eaglefield-Hull wrote: 'He unites to a fine tenor voice, wide culture, perfection of vocal declamation and high dramatic attainments.'

Of his concert repertoire Gerald Moore wrote: 'Was there ever a singer with a wider repertoire...? he was equally at home in the lieder of Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann as he was with the early English songs of Arne, Byrd and Purcell; he championed the songs of Bax, Ireland, Howells, Warlock, and was abreast of the younger school; the chansons of Weckerlin, Bruneau, Lully, tripped as easily off his tongue as did Faure and Duparc. In Germany they called him the ideal Siegfried and Lohengrin. He had played many roles at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, under Sir Thomas Beecham, and it is a moot point whether he or Gervase Elwes was the finest Gerontius of that era.' [Moore 1962: cf "Penguin" edn 1968, 34.]


John Coates recorded first for the Gramophone Company (beginning 1907), and afterwards (including electrical recordings) for Columbia Records.

"Gramophone Company: English and Italian Catalogues:" [J.R. Bennett, "Voices of the Past: Catalogue of Vocal recordings from the English Catalogue of the Gramophone Company, etc." (1955); J.R. Bennett, "Voices of the Past Vol. 2: Catalogue of Vocal recordings from the Italian Catalogues of the Gramophone Company, etc." (Oakwood Press, 1967).]
*3-2910 Take a pair of sparkling eyes, from "The Gondoliers" (Sullivan). 1907
*3-2911 John's wife (Roeckel). 1907
*3-2963 Eldorado (Mallison). 1908
*3-2968 There is a flower that bloometh, from "Maritana" (Vincent Wallace). 1908
*3-2984 At the mid hour of night (Cowen). 1908
*3-2985 Green grow the rashes, O. 1908
*4-2552 Ninetta (Brewer). 1915 (E34)
*4-2614 O may my dreams come true (Fothergill). 1915 (E34)
*02092 Cielo e mar, from "La Gioconda" (Ponchielli). 1907
*02100 Dai campi, dai prati, from "Mefistofele" (Boito). 1907
*02108 Lohengrin's farewell, from "Lohengrin" (Wagner). 1907
*02109 Lohengrin's narration, from "Lohengrin" (Wagner). 1907
*02111 Come into the garden, Maud (Balfe). 1907
*02144 Celeste Aida, from "Aida" (Verdi). 1908
*02145 Watchman's scene, from "Hymn of Praise" (Mendelssohn). 1908
*02172 Too late! (Atkins). 1909
*02584 In the dawn (Elgar). 1915
*052219 Cielo e mar, from "La Gioconda" (Ponchielli). 1908
*052223 Giunto sul passo estremo, from "Mefistofele" (Boito). 1908


*In Kobbe 1922: John Coates as Siegfried (p195), Tristan (p229) and as Dick Johnson (La Fanciulla del West, Puccini)(p675).
*In Scott 1979: John Coates portrait, Pl 125 (p171).
*In Lee-Browne 1999: John Coates as Hoffmann, Plate vii.



*T. Beecham, "A Mingled Chime" (Hutchinson, 1944).
*T. Beecham, "Frederick Delius" (Hutchinson, 1959).
*J.R. Bennett, "Voices of the Past: Catalogue of Vocal recordings from the English Catalogue of the Gramophone Company, etc." (1955).
*J.R. Bennett, "Voices of the Past Vol. 2: Catalogue of Vocal recordings from the Italian Catalogues of the Gramophone Company, etc." (Oakwood Press, 1967).
*D. Bispham, "A Quaker Singer's recollections" (Macmillan, New York 1920).
*G. Davidson, "Opera Biographies" (Werner Laurie, London 1955).
*A. Eaglefield-Hull (Ed), "A Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians" (Dent, London 1924).
*W. Elwes and R. Elwes, "Gervase Elwes, The Story of his Life" (Grayson and Grayson, London 1935).
*G. Kobbé, "The Complete Opera Book", 1st English Edn (Putnam's, London 1922).
*M. Lee-Browne, "Nothing so Charming as Musick! The Life and Times of Frederic Austin" (Thames, London 1999).
*G. Moore, "Am I too Loud?" (Hamish Hamilton 1962).
*H. Rosenthal and J. Warrack, "Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera" (Corrected Edition) (London 1974).
*"Musical Times", 1 December 1911.
*M. Scott, "The Record of Singing" Vol 2: 1914-1925 (Duckworth, London 1979).
*H. Wood, "My Life of Music" (Gollancz, London 1938).
*P.M. Young, "Letters of Edward Elgar and other writings" (Geoffrey Bles, London 1956).

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