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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Samuel Taylor-Coleridge: One Hit Wonder

By Norman Lebrecht / April 7, 2004

One summer’s morning in 1912, a man of 37 left home and walked to West Croydon railway station, where he bought a ticket to Crystal Palace. Before the train could puff in, he collapsed on the platform. Unaided, he staggered home to St Leonard’s Road where a doctor diagnosed pneumonia and prescribed rest. The patient worked on in bed on the manuscript of a violin concerto; he died four days later.

At the funeral, crowds lined the route four thick, for his was more than local celebrity. Samuel Taylor-Coleridge was the first black composer to make an impact on English ears. His cantata, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, a setting of Longfellow’s epic poem, drew mass attendances on both sides of the Atlantic, outperforming every other choral novelty (including Elgar’s) by the kind of margin that Andrew Lloyd Webber presently outperforms Harrison Birtwistle.

Hiawatha remained popular for well over than half a century, seasonally packing the Royal Albert Hall. I recall a boyhood radio broadcast; I may even have sung a stanza or two at school. Then the great sing-song fell out of fashion taking with it the remains of the composer’s reputation. Of his other 80-odd opus numbers, two Hiawatha sequels fell flat and the orchestral parts of that deathbed violin concerto went down, it is reported, with the Titanic.

Such is the fickleness of reputation that it is generally wise to let dormant composers lie, but Coleridge-Taylor’s is an uneasy rest. Some claim him as a victim of English racism, others of capitalist exploitation. This month, the first recording of his violin concerto – performed by Philippe Graffin with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra and released on Avie Records – allows us to assess this unfortunate artist on musical merit.

His life is well documented in a modern biography by Geoffrey Self (Scolar Press, 1995). Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn on August 15, 1875, the illegitimate son of Daniel Taylor, a newly-qualified surgeon from Sierre Leone and an English girl called Alice, whose surname is uncertain. Taylor soon returned to Africa, possibly before his son’s birth, unable to find patients who were prepared to be treated by a black doctor.

Samuel was abused at school, other urchins setting fire to his tightly curled hair. He sought refuge in music and, showing talent on the violin, was sent by Alice for tuition at the Royal College of Music. In his second term, he composed two anthems that were published by Novellos. Encouraged by the college founder, George Grove, and by his composition professor, Charles Villiers Stanford, the boy poured forth new scores. He wrote three movements of a symphony for the college orchestra, as well as much chamber music for his classmates.

Casually referred to as a ‘nigger’ by some musical grandees, his rhythms were criticised in the Musical Times as ‘barbaric’, but he was generally cossetted and groomed for great things. On graduation, his Novellos editor August Jaeger introduced him to Edward Elgar who obtained him a commission for the 1898 Three Choirs Festival, an orchestral Ballade in A minor.

Two months later, in November 1898, Stanford conducted Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast at the RCM, placed between Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture and Beethoven’s fifth symphony. The Times called it ‘clever’ and the Guardian ‘effective’ but such was the buzz about this exciting young composer that six towns booked the cantata before its first note was publicly sung. Within months it was being performed around the English-speaking world, as far afield as New Zealand.

To its composer, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast paid tribute to native north Americans, dignified in defeat. To his audiences, it celebrated the white man’s triumph, the superiority of his culture. In America, Coleridge-Taylor was dubbed ‘the black Mahler’ for his energetic conducting. Racially insulted on a train, he glared at his tormentor and declared 'I am an Englishman'. In the face of prejudice, he conducted himself with imperial dignity.

Almost from the moment of success, he was beset by money worries. He married his college sweetheart, Jessie, and soon needed more than Novellos’ £100 annual stipend to feed a family of four. He took on a professorship at Trinity College, as well as much private teaching and choral conducting. He wa shorribly overworked, to the point of collapse.

Jessie was left penniless at his death, thrown on the mercies of a charity concert, which raised £1440. The King, George V, awarded her a Civil List Pension of £100 and Novellos came under pressure from the Society of Authors to share its Hiawatha bonanza, which Jaeger admitted was ‘the biggest success Novellos had since (Mendelssohn’s) Elijah’. It emerged that the publishers had paid the young composer 15 guineas (£15.75) for the cantata, which earned the company a fortune. Their refusal to grant the widow a fair royalty resulted, in 1914, in the formation of the Performing Rights Society, which has exacted fair dues for composers in Britain ever since. That, if anything, is Coleridge-Taylor's lasting legacy.

Whether out of impecuniousness or exhaustion, it is clear that his consistency fell away steeply after Hiawatha. Where the cantata is impressively structured, its themes nicely developed, the violin concerto is a patchwork of snatched ideas and effects, none of which is allowed to achieve maturity. Written for the American soloist Maud Powell, it betrays hints of Stephen Foster in the opening theme and persistent nudges of US-era Dvorak. The finale alone, Brahmsian in tone but surgent with new-world get-up-and-go, reveals a composer in command of his material and confident in his stride.

Beautifully played by the impeccable South Africans and their warm-toned French soloist, the concerto is a touching musical might-have-been. Given equal opportunity, would Samuel Coleridge-Taylor have earned himself a place in the concert pantheon? On repeated hearing of his deathbed work, my guess is not. The music conveys no assertive individuality, nothing to tell you that this is a work by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and no other. Too shy to express passion, he belongs among the one-hit wonders, the composers who touched the public mood once and never, for the life of them, understood why.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001