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8.223516 - COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: Hiawatha Overture / Petite Suite
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born on 15th August 1875 in London. His father was a Negro physician from Sierra Leone, West Africa, and his mother was an English woman. When the medical practice failed, his father returned to Africa, deserting young Samuel and his mother. The boy's disadvantaged upbringing did not stifle his love of music. His violin studies progressed to the point where he was able to give his first public recital when only eight. He also sang as a choirboy in Croydon and, encouraged and helped by his choirmaster, he eventually entered the Royal College of Music in 1890. Initially he enrolled as a student of the violin, and in the same year his first important composition, a Te Deum, was published.
In 1891, when Coleridge-Taylor was still only sixteen, Novello published one of his anthems, In Thee O Lord, followed by four more in 1892. In 1892 he also began studying composition under Sir Charles Stanford, and won a composition scholarship in March 1893. At a chamber music concert in Croydon on 9th October 1893, the programme included Coleridge-Taylor's Piano Quintet, part of his Clarinet Sonata, and three of his songs, with the composer at the piano.
Like most young composers, many of Coleridge-Taylor' s early works received their first performances at students' events, and between 1894 and 1897 Royal College of Music concerts included the Nonet, the Clarinet Quintet, Five Fantasiestücke for String Orchestra, and the String Quartet in D minor. Stanford personally conducted the first three movements of his Symphony in A minor in St. James's Hall (which later became the Piccadilly Hotel) in 1896. It was hardly surprising that this outpouring of talent gained Coleridge-Taylor the Lesley Alexander composition prize in both 1895 and 1896. He completed his studies at the Royal College of Music in 1897.
Away from the comforting security of the Royal College, Coleridge-Taylor won his first commission in 1898 from the Three Choirs Festival. A valuable influence during this formative period of his career was A.J. Jaeger, who made Coleridge-Taylor's music known to Edward Elgar. It was Elgar who had recommended the young composer for this festival commission, for which Coleridge-Taylor wrote his Ballade in A minor for orchestra.
Two months later Sir Charles Stanford conducted the first performance of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast (the first part of the Hiawatha trilogy) at the Royal College of Music on 11th November 1988. From contemporary reports it does not appear to have been a very good performance, but the work was received with great enthusiasm from critics and public alike.
Coleridge-Taylor's genius now became evident to the musical public at large, and in their eyes he had achieved fame overnight. The success of Hiawatha prompted many commissions from various music festivals, for which Coleridge-Taylor created his Overture to The Song of Hiawatha, The Death of Minnehaha, Hiawatha's Departure and various cantatas, of which A Tale of Old Japan became the most highly regarded.
While at the Royal College of Music Coleridge-Taylor met his wife Jessie Walmisley, a fellow student who came from Wallington in Surrey, and they married on 30th December 1899 at the Church of Holy Trinity in Selhurst. It was hardly surprising that they named their son, born on 15th October 1900, Hiawatha. A daughter, Gwendolen, who later adopted the name Avril was born on 8th March 1903, and both children possessed considerable musical talents.
By now Coleridge-Taylor was moving into the field of incidental music as another of his main areas of composition. Herbert Beerbohm Tree commissioned his work for four plays by Stephen Phillips, Alfred Noyes's The Forest of Wild Thyme and Shakespeare's Othello. Coleridge-Taylor also became recognised as an accomplished conductor.
As early as 1901 Coleridge-Taylor was appointed by the Westmoreland Festival, a position he held until 1904, and he became permanent conductor of the Handel Society from 1904 until his death. Many choral and orchestral societies also sought his services in this capacity. His scholarship was recognised by London's Trinity College of Music, who appointed him professor of composition in 1903. A similar position with the Guildhall School of Music followed in 1910. Even before his first visit to the United States, in 1901, a Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society was founded for black singers in Washington, D.C. He crossed the Atlantic in 1904, 1906 and 1910 to direct performances of his music. Described by New York orchestral players as the "black Mahler", he assumed a mission to dignify the Negro, and he regarded his 24 Negro Melodies as being of particular importance in this respect. He seriously considered emigrating to the United states so that he could pursue this work more directly.
Coleridge-Taylor's musical idol had always been Dvořák, whose influences scholars have noted, often somewhat disparagingly, but from time to time, mainly in his shorter works, Coleridge-Taylor displayed a maturity and originality which fully justified his status, and the considerable success accorded to him.
During his tragically short lifetime Coleridge-Taylor was to become best known for his choral and vocal music, but he was also very active in other musical forms. Reference books reveal an astounding output, ranging from his early Symphony to a Violin Concerto, ballads, piano music and many small instrumental and orchestral works. Some of his more important works included:
Despite his growing importance internationally, Coleridge-Taylor chose to remain in Croydon, teaching and composing, and travelling considerable distances to conduct. He was greatly respected as a man for his dignity and patience, as well as for his immense musical output. Sadly it appears that his early death from pneumonia was caused by overwork. He died on 1st September 1912 in Croydon at the age of 37. His music remained popular for many years after his death, and his son Hiawatha conducted his father's ballet music in a number of staged performances of Hiawatha at London's Royal Albert Hall, the first on 19th May 1924. His daughter Avril also upheld the family tradition through her conducting and composing, including a Piano Concerto in F minor.
Hiawatha Overture Op. 30 (1899)
It is entirely appropriate that this collection of Coleridge-Taylor's music should commence with part of his most famous work - his setting of Longfellow's renowned poem. In fact this subject was to frame the composer's musical achievements, since Hiawatha's Wedding Feast firmly launched his career in 1898, and his Hiawatha Ballet Music Op. 82 (1912) was to prove to be his last composition. The full title of the original complete score was The Song Of Hiawatha; the most famous aria in this large choral work was On Away Awake Beloved, which formed part of the repertoire of almost every concert tenor for the following fifty years.
Today's theatre audiences expect the 'overture' to feature excerpts from the best songs from the musical they are about to see, but this has certainly not always been the case. The Hiawatha Overture does not contain Coleridge-Taylor's most famous aria; instead it can be regarded as an individual work - at times romantic, on other occasions almost demanding to be used as exciting film background music.
Petite Suite de Concert Op. 77 (1910)
The Petite Suite de Concert is rightly regarded by many of the composer's admirers as a masterpiece, and it is undoubtedly the work by which he is best known today. One could almost imagine a man of Coleridge-Taylor's abilities producing such a work as, perhaps, a slightly annoying commission, interrupting the steady flow of choral and vocal writing (especially those inf1uenced through his respect for the American Negro), which had become his forte.
If such a hypothesis contains a grain of truth, then Coleridge-Taylor would have been in good company. Many writers have created some of their greatest works under pressure, often finding themselves in areas slightly alien to their personal preferences. Had he lived a normal lifespan, one is tempted to believe that Coleridge-Taylor could have rivalled Eric Coates, Haydn Wood and Edward German as a major force in light music when this style became so immensely popular in the 1920s and 1930s.
The first movement La Caprice de Nanette has an impressive opening which quickly develops into a charming little waltz. Naturally there are influences of the great European composers of the nineteenth century, yet one can sense that Coleridge-Taylor was looking forward to - almost anticipating - the popular styles that would soon gain such widespread support. Demande et Réponse has the strongest melody in the suite, reminiscent of many of the popular ballads of its day. Critics have likened it to Elgar's Salut d'Amour. Coleridge-Taylor employed a balletic style for the third movement Un Sonnet d'Amour, providing a peaceful interlude before the Tarantella Frétillante (as promised in the title) explodes into a frisky finale.
Four Characteristic Waltzes Op. 22 (1898)
A relatively early work, Four Characteristic Waltzes dates from the time when Coleridge-Taylor was courting his future wife. He explained to her that he was not writing music for dancing (in later years Eric Coates was to describe his waltzes, or valses, in a similar way): quoting Brahms as an example, he said he just wanted to treat the subjects in a waltz rhythm.
Gipsy Suite Op. 20 (1897)
Like many of Coleridge-Taylor's non-vocal works, Gipsy Suite originated as an instrumental work for violin and pianoforte. This orchestral setting was by L. Artock, and is just one of several similar commissions he undertook for the composer.
Romance of the Prairie Lilies Op. 39 (1899)
Romance of the Prairie Lilies, a 'drearn poem', was arranged by P.E. Fletcher. Like the Hiawatha Overture, it is packed with interesting ideas, many of them giving further confirmation of the influence that Coleridge-Taylor would exert on later generations of British composers.
Othello Suite Op. 79 (1909)
The Othello Suite was commissioned for a Herbert Beerbohm Tree production of Shakespeare's Othello at His Majesty's Theatre in London. Originally comprising five movements (the Funeral March has been omitted from this recording), the work contains several strong and contrasting themes, which must have sounded most impressive in their original theatrical setting.
The gramophone was still in its infancy when Coleridge-Taylor created most of his works, and he died before it became a major force in home entertainment. 78 rpm recordings were destined to predominate for over fifty years, thereby imposing a discipline on future light orchestral composers, obliging them to develop fully their ideas within three or four minutes. The three-minute single orchestral cameo would probably have seemed trivial to nineteenth-century composers, more familiar with grouping their works in suites of three or four movements. No doubt this was necessary in many instances to ensure concert performances, yet when we listen to these pieces individually today they can usually stand alone. Possibly titles such as Four Waltzes or Gipsy Suite may seem somewhat mundane by our standards (although purists would probably strongly disagree!), but it is the music that matters. On this basis, the work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor compares most favourably with the very best.
© 1995 David Ades
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