In the composer's centenary year Andrew Achenbach celebrates Coleridge-Taylor's life and music
Poor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912): in agreeing to a one-off fee of 15 guineas for the publishing rights to his 1898 cantata Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, he missed out on a fortune. In the years preceding the Great War, Novello sold in excess of 140,000 copies of the vocal score alone, the royalties from which would have secured the young composer and his growing family a far more amenable and stress-free lifestyle. Instead, the impecunious (and by all accounts, extremely affable and generous-spirited) Coleridge-Taylor was obliged to take on a variety of duties. As well as writing a sizeable quantity of salon morsels for swift cash payment, he held professorships at both Trinity College of Music (from 1903) and the Guildhall School of Music (from 1910). In addition, he developed a successful career as a conductor, his packed schedule taking him up and down the country as a guest of numerous choral societies. He was also a popular and highly prized adjudicator at many competitions. Such a punishing workload inevitably took its toll on his health and helped hasten his early demise, from a bout of pneumonia, aged just 37.
Born in Croydon of mixed race to a doctor from Sierra Leone and English mother, young Samuel revealed a talent for the violin and, aided by a local benefactor, found himself at the age of 15 studying the instrument with Henry Holmes at the Royal College of Music. Here he also became a composition student of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and, the following year, Novello published his anthem In Thee, O Lord.
Samuel was, along with William Hurlstone (another prodigious talent who died tragically young), Stanford's favourite pupil and many of his most rewarding early achievements were first played through at that august institution. These include a fluent, big-boned Piano Quintet (his official Op 1, from 1893), Nonet (1894) and Clarinet Quintet (1895). In the case of the last-mentioned, the story goes that, following a college performance of Brahms's sublime essay in the medium, Stanford commented to his pupils that it was impossible for any composer writing for the same instrumental combination to escape the German's master's influence. Upon inspecting the teenage composer's efforts, Stanford is reputed to have exclaimed: 'You've done it, m'bhoy!' And no wonder, for it is a remarkably assured and wholly engaging achievement by any standard, the slow movement boasting a gorgeous tune of which Dvořák would have been proud.
Less compelling, though still thoroughly worthwhile, is the Symphony in A minor, the first three movements of which were tried out in June 1896 by the college orchestra (which numbered in its ranks a certain Gustav von Holst on trombone and Ralph Vaughan Williams on triangle). There's another, particularly choice anecdote associated with this piece. While inspecting the original manuscript with his gifted young protégé, Stanford inadvertently spilt tea all over it. There was a moment's stunned silence, before the venerable professor uttered the immortal observation: 'Good Lord, m'bhoy, it's a "Symphony in T"!'
1898 was the breakthrough year. Endorsed by Elgar as 'far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men', Coleridge-Taylor was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival to compose an orchestral work. The resulting Ballade in A minor proves a splendidly ebullient, big-hearted essay featuring a peach of a second subject. It was most warmly received by the audience in Gloucester Cathedral. However, that was nothing as to the sensational impact of the world premiere some three months later of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast. This 50-minute adaptation of words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855) made the 23-year-old a national celebrity overnight and its prodigal fund of melodic riches, narrative flair and sense of wide-eyed wonder never fail to captivate (try the indelible tenor aria 'Onaway! Awake, beloved!'). The cantata's runaway success (by 1904, it had chalked up well over 200 performances on both sides of the Atlantic) spawned two further settings from Longfellow's epic poem, namely The Death of Minnehaha (1899) and Hiawatha's Departure (1900), and the trilogy was published under the title of The Song of Hiawatha. Between 1928 and 1939, all three (together with the Hiawatha ballet music of 1912) were lavishly staged for two weeks every year at the Royal Albert Hall with Sir Malcolm Sargent an avuncular presence on the podium.
Coleridge-Taylor was enormously proud of his African heritage. In 1898, he collaborated with the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar on an 'operatic romance' entitled Dream Lovers, and two years later was a delegate to the inaugural Pan-African Conference held in London. 1904 brought the first of three high-profile visits to the USA, where the composer found himself hailed as a hero among the black community in Washington, D.C. (that same city's African-American Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society had been founded three years previously). He was even received at the White House by the President, Theodore Roosevelt.
Other notable works with a black or African sensibility include the 1901 concert overture Toussaint Louverture (inspired by the eponymous black leader of the Haitian Revolution), an ambitious sequence from 1905 of 24 Negro Melodies for solo piano, Symphonic Variations on an African Air (a powerfully argued, consummately scored and deeply poignant canvas from 1906, based on the spiritual and old slave song, 'I'm troubled in mind'), and, last but not least, The Bamboula, a roistering dance rhapsody first played in June 1910 by the New York Philharmonic (whose members nicknamed its creator-conductor 'the African Mahler') and commissioned by the philanthropist Carl Stoeckel.
It was Stoeckel who suggested to the great American virtuoso, Maud Powell, that she should request a Violin Concerto from Coleridge-Taylor. Its genesis was not without troubles. The initial plan was to write a concerto based on negro spiritual themes, but neither the composer nor soloist was happy with the first draft. He soon informed Powell that he was 'writing a new work at white heat', while Stoeckel also received a correspondence 'requesting me to throw [the concerto] into the fire; and saying that he had written an entirely new and original work, all the melodies being his own, and a hundred times better than the first composition'. Next, the full score and orchestral parts got lost at sea (some commentators allege they went down with Titanic); fortunately, though, Coleridge-Taylor was able to produce a replacement set in the nick of time.
Powell gave the first performance, on June 4, 1912, at the Norfolk Connecticut Music Festival. The absent composer was represented by a portrait on the platform, and the slow movement (an Andante semplice of ravishing lyrical beauty) served as an encore. Arthur Catterall was the soloist for the work's official British premiere, on October 8, 1912, with Sir Henry Wood conducting; sadly, Coleridge-Taylor was not there to hear it, having passed away a mere five weeks previously. Let me urge immediate investigation of this delectable piece which has made a spectacular comeback in recent years (there now exist no fewer than three top-class commercial recordings).
Do check out, too, the lovely Violin Sonata (1898) that was championed by the legendary Albert Sammons after the composer's death, as well as the vernally fresh Petite Suite de Concert (1911) – light music of the very highest quality, and crammed full of tunes that lodge themselves securely in the brain. Who knows, perhaps the centenary of his death will prompt some enterprising record company to explore more of his output: how about the shipwreck cantata Meg Blane (1902), choral rhapsody Kubla Khan (1905), incidental music to The Forest of Wild Thyme (1910), A Tale of Old Japan (a 1911 setting of his good friend Alfred Noyes's oriental poem) or his Nordic opera in three acts, Thelma (1907-09), which was finally staged last February by Surrey Opera and is reputed to contain some of his most characteristic and urgently expressive inspiration?
The Song of Hiawatha. Symphonic Variations on an African Air* Helen Field, Arthur Davies, Bryn Terfel, WNO Chorus and Orchestra / Kenneth Alwyn; *RLPO / Llewellyn Decca 473 471-2 (2 CDs) Buy from Amazon
Piano Quintet; Ballade in C minor; Clarinet Quintet Nash Ensemble Hyperion CDA67590 Buy from Amazon
Violin Concerto in G minor; Legend; Romance in G major McAslan (vn) LPO/Braithwaite Lyrita SRCD 317 Buy from Amazon
Music for Violin and Piano David Juritz (vn) Michael Dussek (pf) Dutton CDLX 7127 Buy from Amazon