Moeran, Ernest John Smeed (1894–1950), composer, was born 31 December 1894 at Spring Grove, Isleworth, Middlesex, the younger of two sons of the Rev. Joseph William Wright and Ada Hester (‘Esther’) Moeran (née Whall). His elder brother, Graham, followed their father into the anglican priesthood. The family moved to Bacton in Norfolk soon after Moeran's birth, and it was there that he spent his childhood. Having taught himself to read music and play the piano, his interest was encouraged at Suffield Park preparatory school (1904–8) and later Uppingham School (1908–12), where he developed into a proficient pianist and violinist. His earliest attempts at composition date from this time. In 1913 Moeran enrolled at the Royal College of Music (RCM), where he began to study composition with Charles Villiers Stanford (qv), but he did not return in autumn 1914, enlisting on 30 September as a motorcycle dispatch rider in the sixth (cyclist) battalion of the Norfolk regiment. Having been rapidly promoted, first to lance corporal and later to second lieutenant, he was severely wounded on 3 May 1917 at Bullecourt, near Arras, by shell particles that became lodged in his head, too close to the brain to be removed.
On being discharged from hospital, unfit for active service, he was promoted lieutenant and stationed at Boyle, Co. Roscommon. Although Joseph Moeran had been born in Dublin, he had been taken to England as an infant and had never returned to Ireland, and this was his son's first visit to Ireland. While stationed at Boyle, Moeran first encountered Irish folk music, the impact of which can be heard in his first publication, Three pieces for piano (1919), and which remained an important influence throughout his career.
Moeran returned to England in late 1918 and was discharged from the army in January 1919. After a brief period of teaching music at his old school at Uppingham, he returned to the RCM and studied composition with John Ireland. The music written during this period is increasingly mature; it includes a piano trio (1920), the String Quartet in A minor (no. 1, 1921), and a violin sonata (1923), as well as his first orchestral works, the symphonic impression In the mountain country (1921), and Rhapsody no. 1 (1922). After the war Moeran's interest in folk song intensified; he became active as a folk-song collector and later published three collections of songs, one each from Norfolk (1923), Suffolk (1931), and Kerry (1950). During the 1920s he travelled extensively, sometimes with his friend Philip Heseltine (the composer Peter Warlock), with whom he shared a cottage at Eynsford in Kent between 1925 and 1928. Heseltine shared and encouraged Moeran's enthusiasm for the music of Delius and his interest in Elizabethan music, which, coupled with folk song, became an important influence on his melodic style.
After 1928 Moeran visited Ireland more and more often and for extended periods to find the quiet he needed in order to compose. Kerry, in particular the area around Kenmare, but also Valentia Island, proved ideally suited to his requirements: they offered solitude, the striking natural beauty that inspired him, and an unsophisticated rural society in which he felt at ease. It was in Kerry that he finished his Symphony in G minor in 1937; he had all but completed an earlier version in 1924, but it was only after the technical and stylistic maturation of the early 1930s – which produced works such as Whythorne's shadow and the String Trio (both 1931) – that he was ready to revise and complete the symphony. Moeran began work on his Violin Concerto (1941) shortly after completing the symphony, and in this work an Irish influence is perhaps more obvious than in any other – not only in the melodic inflections of Irish folk song, which abound, but also in the sense of calm ease that pervades the work. Moeran sought inspiration on long walks in the Kerry mountain country, and friends such as the composer Arnold Bax (qv) noted Moeran's popularity with local people; his joy at having found a suitable place to live and work is reflected throughout the concerto, in which his lyrical gifts are explored to their fullest.
Moeran had begun gathering ideas for a second symphony while he was still engaged with the Violin Concerto, but the work remained unfinished due to his dissatisfaction with its form. His absences from Ireland, during which he felt unable to work on the symphony, were a further obstacle to its completion. In 1945 he married the cellist Peers Coetmore (Kathleen Peers Coetmore-Jones, 1905–76) and at this period underwent treatment for alcoholism (a problem that afflicted him intermittently after the Second World War, his tolerance for alcohol being severely affected by his war injury); these circumstances put an end to his continuous residence in Ireland, where, lacking a private income, he could not afford to maintain a permanent home. His marriage to Peers Coetmore was troubled and difficult; owing to his need for solitude in order to compose and her busy performing schedule, which led to extensive travel, they frequently spent long periods apart.
The works written after the Violin Concerto, including commissions such as the Rhapsody in F sharp minor for piano and orchestra (for the 1943 BBC Proms) and the Overture for a masque (1944, for the Entertainments National Service Association – ENSA), as well as the exuberant Sinfonietta (1944), show a more secure approach to form and balance, allied in the last to a more astringent idiom. The Cello Concerto of 1945 and Cello Sonata of 1947, both written for his wife, are among Moeran's greatest achievements; in these works, particularly the sonata, Moeran finally achieved a fully mature and personal style, free from any obvious signs of external influence, with effortless management of material and formal balance. The premieres of both works were given in Dublin by Peers Coetmore: the Concerto in the Capitol Theatre on 25 November 1945 with the Radio Éireann Orchestra conducted by Michael Bowles (qv), and the Sonata on 9 May 1947 in a live broadcast on Radio Éireann with pianist Charles Lynch (qv). Broadcasts and performances in Ireland of Moeran's music were regular during this period.
The onset of gradual mental disintegration rendered Moeran practically incapable of composing, and he died on 1 December 1950, falling from the pier at Kenmare during a storm. A coroner's inquest found no water in his lungs, and concluded that he had died of cerebral haemorrhage before falling into the water. He was buried near Kenmare at the Killowen burial grounds. Besides the works named above, Moeran composed several pieces for piano (most of which date from early in his career), choral works, including Songs of springtime (1930), Nocturne for baritone, chorus, and orchestra (1934), and the choral suite Phyllida and Corydon (1939), and many fine songs, such as the two cycles to words by Irish poets, Seven poems of James Joyce (1929) and Six poems of Seumas O'Sullivan (1944); two notable late instrumental works are the Fantasy quartet for oboe and strings (1946) and the orchestral Serenade in G (1948). After his death, his papers were dispersed widely, to several persons and locations. A large collection of manuscripts (including early, unpublished works and the only remaining sketch for the unfinished Second Symphony) is held at the Victorian College of Arts, Melbourne, Australia.