Young Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
is profiled at AfriClassical.com, which
features a comprehensive Works List and a
Bibliography by Dr. Dominique- René de Lerma,
The following excerpt is taken from a web feature on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor which is a lengthy examination not limited to music. We believe the reader will find it informative, but we do not necessarily share all of the views of the authors, including the suggestion that his advocacy of Black American music may have been "...a little patronizing."
March 6, 2015
Though The Heavens Fall, Part 2
By John Jeremiah Sullivan & Joel Finsel | March 6, 2015
Part 2: The Higher Musical Calling
Most people have heard of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, canonical English poet and laudanum addict. Far fewer know the life and work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Coleridge-Taylor was a black composer, London-born, his mother a white English woman, his father a doctor from Sierra Leone. The father, frustrated by his inability as a black man to rise higher than a subordinate position in an English hospital, left the family when Samuel was young, went to Africa and never returned. Samuel was raised by his mother. His English schoolmates called him Coalie, according to profiles that ran years later in the London press. They would “taunt” the “keenly sensitive” boy, who “suffered extremely” from the abuse. They once set his hair on fire “to see whether it would burn.”
He had a violin that he carried around “as a girl carries her doll.” One night he was out walking around with it, stopping now and then to play marbles on the sidewalk, and he passed by a well-to-do house. There was a fire in the parlor, a glow in the window, and he could hear music. One of the people inside saw him staring and noticed what he was carrying. They called him inside. At first he was shy, but when two of the men in the group began to play a violin duet, he pulled out his instrument and leapt in, so effortlessly that “all present marveled.” The man who owned the house, Joseph Beckwith, took him on as a student and taught him for more than a decade.
He emerged as a violin prodigy, whose performances—on that instrument and on the pianoforte, in churches and at curated “smoking sessions” in aristocratic houses—drew admiring notice in the English press, sometimes including mention of his having proved “a young gentleman of colour,” other times not, or unaware of it. He performed multiple works by Edvard Grieg, a Romantic composer who’d turned to the folk songs of his Norwegian ancestry for fresh melodic ideas.
Coleridge-Taylor’s own compositions start showing up around 1892. Church songs, at first. “Break Forth Into Joy” and “Oh! Ye That Love the Lord.” Christmas anthems, composed for hire. Derivative but “well-written,” said the Guardian. Then came a soprano solo piece, “Zara’s Earrings,” subtitled perhaps with quiet irony, “A Moorish Ballad.” Next he set one of Byron’s poems to music, and finally, succumbing to the weight of his name, he set Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” claiming later that it had been only when the poet’s grandson Ernest Hartley Coleridge had read it to him over tea one afternoon that it “sang its way into his brain.”
As the century waned, Coleridge-Taylor waxed. The composer Edward Elgar voiced admiration and opened doors for him. Somebody called him the African Mahler. His Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was staged as a ballet. He and his wife, a pianist named Jessie Walmisley (a white woman from a notable family who’d fought the couple’s marriage to the bitterest end), had a son together and named him Hiawatha.
Black newspapers in America paid a lot of attention to Coleridge-Taylor between 1897, when he first rose to international notice, and his premature death in 1912. He died of pneumonia (he’d smoked incessantly). He collapsed in an English train station. The Indianapolis Freeman said that he may have enjoyed “more distinction than any known to any other member of the race.” Many viewed him as a kind of miraculous bodying forth of the famous “Dvořák Statement” on black music, which had been uttered precisely as Coleridge-Taylor made his debut. Antonín Dvořák is of course the celebrated Czech composer. He lived in America for a while in the 1890s and during that time took on students. One of his charges was a Southern boy, white (we assume) but enamored of the black songs he remembered from childhood. The boy taught a few of these “real negro melodies” to Dvořák, who went wild for them. Dvořák started having his students go to minstrel shows and take notes. He told a newspaper interviewer that “in the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”
This sentence—this Statement—resonated powerfully in the bosom of black America, a community seeking forms to express its freedom. Serious people were starting to say that the “old negro songs,” which had both entertained and sustained them through generations, might also be art, that perhaps “the Afro-American,” as the Chicago Broad Ax put it several years later, “is destined to become the true artist.”
The importance of Coleridge-Taylor—whose music can still give pleasure a century-plus on—isn’t just that he was half-African in his DNA, but that he thought of his music as spiritually black. He wasn’t, in other words, just following Dvořák in the sense of, Here I am, the black composer you predicted would come, but instead following the method of Dvořák, who himself had based many of his pieces on old Bohemian folk songs, and of Edvard Grieg, the favorite composer of his youth. Coleridge-Taylor saw that he had rare access to a similarly deep well of melodic material in his own heritage. Often he even sounded like Dvořák, in interviews, saying things on his American tours such as, “I intend to do all in my power to call attention to this splendid treasure of melody which you have.”
That was nice, but also a little patronizing. As had been Dvořák’s original Statement, for that matter. You have all that you need here to make great music! Really? You sure we don’t just have, you know, great music? Black journalists and critics picked up on this problem. A fascinatingly tortured, admiring, competitive, frustrated response to Coleridge-Taylor made by the black theater critic Sylvester Russell ran in the Indianapolis Freeman in 1905. Coleridge-Taylor had spoken (to another publication) in favor of ragtime but lamented that in Europe “the only idea of ‘rag time’ is that associated with a ‘coon song’ and that is unfortunate, for one thing is certain, and that is the coon songs in this country are ‘bad.’”
Well, maybe. Russell, the black critic, sort of liked some coon songs. After all, “[Bert] Williams and the late [George] Walker”—a black vaudeville duo, blacks who performed in blackface, famous for their hit “Bon Bon Buddy. The Chocolate Drop.”—were known to have “delighted kings and queens and touched the hearts of all with their ‘peculiar minor’ cadence.” 1
Russell’s defense of coon songs in the face of Coleridge-Taylor’s dismissal is on one level a you-don’t-get-it defense of a pop form, a reaction we might recognize and sympathize with as post-moderns, but it’s also something subtler, and more worth noticing, a very quiet subversion of something Coleridge-Taylor is trying to get away with chronologically, or temporally. The composer had said, Here is the modern, here is now, this art music, these “compositions.” You have your “songs,” which are the past, and they’re wonderful, etc., but they aren’t what we can call “serious” music. Perhaps with effort and training, we can make serious music out of them. Or rather, I can. You’ll go on having your “songs.” And it’s excellent the little move Critic Russell makes. He takes out just a few tiny words, but the gulf he opens is vast. Coleridge-Taylor had told the interviewer, “In fact your coon songs are not real negro songs at all; they are concert hall caricatures.” Russell says: “Yes, coon songs are real negro songs; they are concert hall caricatures.” In other words, we go to the concert hall, too. This culture lives, it’s not waiting to be song-collected. It talks to itself as well as up and out, has a cheek to put its tongue in.
Russell also says—he can’t resist, and who’d begrudge him, here was this well-bred English guy (Coleridge-Taylor gave concerts at Eton) telling American blacks what their artistic inheritance meant—he says, “Listen again.” You think you know, but maybe you’ve never heard the real thing. What you call our “low” music isn’t always low. “[W]hat does Mr. Taylor know about the genuine jubilee songs?” Russell asks. “Has he ever heard the original class meeting-room tunes of the Christian daughters of slavery? If he has not we have wisely led him into the higher musical calling of a heavenly trance.”
Russell was being hard on Coleridge-Taylor, who loved and made a profound study of black Southern music (as well as native African styles). In the 1890s SCT even wrote a piece—“A Negro Love-Song,” later re-titled, “African Love Song”—that musicologists consider a candidate for “first blues song.” Granted, there are about ten candidates, and the problem is unsolvable, but the “Love-Song” does have a recognizably bluesy sound and structure, especially in spots, and it uses quite emphatically the flatted third and seventh (“blue notes,” we call them). It was popular too: the Times of London called the appearance of African Suite, the larger opus to which the “Love-Song” belonged, “the unique event in music in the last generation,” and described the “Love-Song” itself as “a revelation of melodic charm and strange, changing harmony.” Yes, Coleridge-Taylor was borrowing from black American songs he’d heard, here and in England. He was taking those anonymous tunes (for as Chicago’s Broad Ax had it, “America’s Afro-American songwriters are unknown”), and he was making “compositions” out of them. But he was really listening.
Comment by email:
Comment by email:
Thanks, Bill. Always great to witness authors newly discovering Samuel Coleridge-Taylor! Charles [Charles Kaufmann]