Anglo-African composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was just 22 and recently graduated from the Royal College of Music (RCM), London, when he completed Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. Hiawatha, a cantata for chorus, orchestra, and tenor, is based on a section of The Song of Hiawatha, the epic poem by noted American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The piece was an instant hit from its first performance at the RCM on November 12, 1898, and during the beginning of the 20th century gained the young composer wide acclaim, if not financial security. Insecure in his own abilities, and a novice in the music publishing business, Coleridge-Taylor sold the Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’s copyright to music publisher Novello’s for a mere 15.15 British pounds, in today’s terms the equivalent of 1,855.18 GBP or $2,404.64. During his 1910 visit to the United States Coleridge-Taylor remarked more than once: “If I had retained my rights in the Hiawatha music I should have been a rich man.”
Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was Coleridge-Taylor’s most successful production, in its time rivaling Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah in popularity. After the cantata’s premiere, Sir Hubert Parry, a contemporary composer, pronounced it “one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history.” The work was received enthusiastically not only in England, but also in South Africa, New Zealand, and the United States.
Despite the popular success of Hiawatha (more than 200,000 copies of the music sold during his too-brief lifetime), Coleridge-Taylor struggled to make a living for himself and his family and his extraordinary efforts to write original commissions, to conduct his and other composers‘ works, and to teach contributed to his premature death from pneumonia at the age of 37.
From 1904 until his death in 1912 he was principal conductor of the Handel Society of London, and professor at Trinity College of Music, at the Crystal Palace School of Art and Music, and at the Guildhall School of Music. At the time of his death, Coleridge-Taylor had produced 82 numbered compositions and some 25 other works.
Unlikely Musical Career
|The composer in is studio|
In addition to his violin mastery, Coleridge-Taylor was an in-demand boy treble soloist at several churches. His musical talent recognized, Coleridge-Taylor in 1890 at age 15 entered the RCM. The young man soon showed promise as a composer and in 1892 was accepted as a student to RCM composition teacher Charles Villiers Stanford, at the time a noted composer. By the age of 20, Coleridge-Taylor had already scored nearly 30 vocal and instrumental works. Inspired by Johannes Brahms’ Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Coleridge-Taylor wrote his own clarinet quintet, leading Stanford to acclaim the originality of his student’s work. Thus Coleridge-Taylor became the RCM’s star student in composition, and in 1893 he received the RCM’s only composition fellowship.
Referring to young Coleridge-Taylor, the music critic Auguste J. Jaeger wrote to his future wife that “I have long been looking for a new English composer of real genius and I believe I have found him.” Mr. Jaeger became a champion of Coleridge-Taylor’s music and pressed music publisher Novello’s to publish Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.
Coleridge-Taylor in 1897 completed his studies at the RCM where several of his student compositions (mostly small group chamber pieces) were performed. Edward Elgar, even in Coleridge-Taylor’s lifetime considered a top English composer, was among the music luminaries of the time who were impressed by Coleridge-Taylor’s work and promoted it. Elgar urged the directors of the prestigious Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester to perform Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade in A Minor for Orchestra in 1898.
Longfellow’s poem, completed in 1855, adopted the trochaic tetrameter [a rapid meter of poetry consisting of four feet of trochees; a trochee is made up of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable] of the Finnish epic poem The Kalevala. When he chose to set the poem to music, Coleridge-Taylor acknowledged his attraction for the characters’ curious-sounding Indian names such as Nokomis, Chibiabos, and Iagoo, and that “The essential beauty of the poem is its native simplicity, its unaffected expression, its unforced realism”. Furthermore, Coleridge-Taylor was a great admirer of the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, and of that composer’s Symphony from the New World which, some experts say, was inspired in part by Longfellow’s Hiawatha. The unusual rhythms of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast are said to be a reflection of Coleridge-Taylor’s admiration for Dvořák’s music.
Although many of Coleridge-Taylor’s works resemble the style of white English composers, even from his student days he was interested in reflecting his African heritage. In this last pursuit, Coleridge-Taylor looked to African-Americans. He found inspiration from the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a gospel chorus from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, that had toured in England. Coleridge-Taylor also partnered with African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, whom he met in London in 1896, to set some of Dunbar’s poems to music. And he composed some African-themed orchestral works. The overture to Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast even incorporates strains from the African-American spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and the composer used melodies of African-American spirituals in his “Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, P. 59” for piano. Contemporaries reported that he advocated for black classical music.
Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was performed in the U.S. before Coleridge-Taylor’s tours here in 1904, 1906, and 1910. The Ann Arbor, Michigan Argus-Democrat of December 15, 1899 announced a December 18 performance by the Choral Union with the Chicago Festival Orchestra. The Chicago Apollo Club on April 15, 1901, at the Chicago National College of Music, presented the premiere Chicago performance of the cantata which “is creating quite a furore both in England and in this country”, the monthly magazine Music reported. Also in 1901, the African-American Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society of the District of Columbia was founded specifically to perform Hiawatha and it invited the composer to conduct the piece when he would tour the U.S. which he did for the first time in November 1904. In an unusual honor at the time for an individual of African descent, President Theodore Roosevelt received Coleridge-Taylor at the White House during the composer’s 1906 visit.
The composer was well-known and respected among African-American communities in the early 20th century, much as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X are well known today. Schools were named after him, including The Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland, and Coleridge-Taylor Montessori Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky.
In a spring 1908 letter to Coleridge-Taylor, the honorary treasurer of the S. Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society summed up African-Americans’ high regard for the composer and his cantata: “In composing Hiawatha you have done the coloured of the U.S. a service which, I am sure, you never dreamed of when composing it. It acts as a source of inspiration for us, not only musically but in other lines of endeavor. When we are going to have a Hiawatha concert here, for at least one month we seem, as it were, to be lifted above the clouds of American colour prejudice, and to live there wholly oblivious of its disadvantages, and indeed of most of our other troubles.”
During his visits to Chicago in late November/early December 1904 and 1906, Coleridge-Taylor conducted a program of his shorter pieces but not Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. Although the composer’s 1904 Chicago concert was arranged with only 10 days’ notice, the hall was full. Reportedly, the Chicago concert pleased him more than the others: “My best time was in Chicago. The audience was made up almost entirely of those whom you would call really musical people, and there was no mistaking the immense German element among the listeners. Coloured people always put in a large attendance, and they were most enthusiastic.”
Song of Hiawatha Trilogy
|A memorial to the composer in his hometown of Croydon (SCT in the center).|
While in modern times Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, and Coleridge-Taylor’s music, had declined in popularity, interest in black composers has grown most recently spurring new performances and recordings. On the 100th anniversary of the work’s premiere, it was revived in Boston in 1998. The Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, South Carolina scheduled a performance for October 21, 2017.
On August 24, 2017, during Chicago’s classical radio station WFMT’s Mid-Day program, host Lisa Flynn played a cut from a new release (Music by Composers of African Descent, or Violin Gems from Black Composers issued summer 2017) by Hungaro-Ethiopian violinist Samuel Nebyu playing Coleridge-Taylor’s Romance, Op. 39. Again on September 6, 2017, WFMT aired Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet in A. Rachel Barton, Chicago’s own star violinist, in 1997 released a new recording under the Cedille label of Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries including Coleridge-Taylor’s Romance in G Major for Violin and Orchestra.
The British paper The Guardian in a June 2, 2015 article titled “Ten black composers whose work deserve to be heard more often” says of Coleridge-Taylor: “Even better [than Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast] are Coleridge-Taylor’s works for violin and orchestra, which are elegant pieces of fin de siecle romanticism.”
- Program note by Miriam B. Scott