Noël Coward was born in a modest suburb of London on the cusp of the 20th century. Sent to dancing school by his mother, he caught the performing bug, and was appearing as a professional actor in the West End by the time he was 12 years old. At 14, he became the protégé of a society painter, Phillip Streatfield, who gave him an entrée into high society, which became his natural element. A tubercular tendency relieved him of duty in WWI, and gave him the opportunity both to hone his acting and commence what was to be a prolific writing career. By the 1920’s he was writing, producing, directing and acting in his own plays, at a rate that led to a collapse in 1926, after which he took his schedule strongly in hand. When WWII began, he resolved to make up for his lack of participation in the first Great War, lending his talents to the British Secret Service. His mission was to influence American opinion in favour of joining the British against Hitler; ironically, this injured his reputation at home, amongst people who thought he should be cheering up his native British and not gallivanting abroad. After the Second War, theatrical styles changed, embracing realism and method acting, and Coward’s style was for a while eclipsed; by the 1960’s his popularity was rebounding, and his reputationfor wit, grace and style was never again challenged.
Today’s selections take a full cross-section of Coward’s song-writing talent. Despite having virtually no formal musical training (he ran screaming from the room when confronted by the rules of harmonic voice leading) he had a phenomenal natural gift for composition. We offer you examples of his witty word play, his wistful waltzes, some biting humour and some bitter observation of the world. Above all, we celebrate his extraordinary “talent to amuse.”
Notes by Laura Jones