The discovery of a long-forgotten British composer-pianist

Simon CallaghanWed 29th April 2015

Roger Sacheverell Coke's piano works deserve serious attention

The unearthing of unknown music is always a joy, evoking feelings of intrigue, wonder and a certain sense of responsibility. My discovery of the music of Derbyshire composer, Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912-72) has been an exciting journey and it’s a real pleasure to be able to present his music for the first time in decades.

A fellow pianist gave me the score of Coke’s 24 Preludes (1938-41) a few years ago. It is an epic set, lasting some 47 minutes and containing so much detail that it might be easy to be overwhelmed. Something encouraged me to persevere though, and I was inspired by how the music gradually opened up to me. Coke’s music could (and has) been compared to several other composers, particularly Scriabin, Bax and Rachmaninov, but in my opinion he has a truly unique voice so I approached my good friend (and wonderful producer) Siva Oke, Director of Somm Recordings.

Sharing my enthusiasm for unjustly neglected English music, I was delighted that Siva was as enthusiastic as I was about these works and we chose to couple them with Coke’s darkly impassioned 15 Variations and Finale, Op 37 (1939). The preparation for the recording was certainly intense. The more I delved into these enigmatic works the more I felt I learnt about the man himself, his attention to detail, his perfectionism and his own pianism.

The only references I could find to Coke were his entry in the 1955 edition of The Grove Dictionary, and a few mentions online. I had to find out more! So, on a rainy winter morning I set out to Chesterfield Library, where Coke’s archive was housed after his former home was sold. The staff were incredibly helpful, and I spent a fun day sifting through handwritten manuscripts, early publications (funded by Coke himself) and, perhaps the most special items in the archive, Coke’s own albums of photos and newspaper cuttings concerning his compositions and performances.

How exhilarating it was to be closer to this man whose life, personal struggles and aspirations became clearer and clearer as I looked through his meticulously collated archive. He was certainly a proud man, often commenting in the margins of a review as to the background (and therefore suitability) of the reviewer! I left the library with even more music to absorb and a growing fondness for Roger and his music.

I thought I had found all there was, but a few months later I had a call from a friend at the British Library, saying he had discovered a recording made in the late 1940s, of Coke playing and talking about his own music. I couldn’t get there quickly enough. It’s a crackly old recording on a reel and sometimes Roger’s words are difficult to make out, but hearing his accent and intonation, along with his wonderful playing was an absolute pleasure, and made me all the happier for having discovered his music and set about presenting it to the world.

After this exhilarating find I was still however frustrated at not being able to find some lost manuscripts, particularly the orchestral score of his Piano Concerto No 3. Thanks to my friend Gareth Vaughan I was delighted to be put in touch with Griselda Brook and Christopher Darwin, niece and nephew of the composer. I spent a lovely morning at Griselda’s north London flat, talking about her loving, warm and compassionate uncle. She informed me that he was gay (difficult for him at a time when being gay was illegal) and suffered from his early twenties with schizophrenia. These struggles do come through in his music, and things began to make much more sense with these revelations and confirmations from Griselda, who has been exceedingly helpful from the moment we made contact. Christopher Darwin had the only existing copy of the Piano Concerto I had been looking for, so here’s to the next recording project…

Simon Callaghan's CD of Roger Sacheverell Coke's Piano Music is released on the Somm label on May 5. For further information visit: simoncallaghan.com

Simon Callaghan

Simon Callaghan is an international concert pianist, recording artist and Artistic Director of Conway Hall Sunday Concerts.

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