Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jeffrey Green: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor And The Handel Society

[Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto; Lorraine McAslan, violin; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Nicholas Braithwaite, conductor; Lyrita SRCD.317 (2007)]

The English historian Jeffrey Green is author of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Musical Life, published by Pickering & Chatto Publishers (2011). He is also a Guest Blogger at AfriClassical. This is his fifth contribution.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor And The Handel Society
by Jeffrey Green
A love of music has brought together many individuals whose paths would other wise have never crossed. So it was in 1904 when London’s Handel Society appointed Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to be their conductor. He was the illegitimate son of an African doctor; the members of the Handel Society were from London’s upper crust.

A major influence in the Handel Society from the moment it was founded in 1882 was Arthur Balfour – nephew of Lord Salisbury, he became Prime Minister in 1902. Balfour’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography notes his love of Handel’s oratorios, and his comment that Handel had possessed ‘a more copious, fluent and delightful gift of melody’ than any other composer.

Coleridge-Taylor, born in London in 1875, had studied the violin and then composition at the Royal College of Music 1890-1897, and had written Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in 1898. This cantata for tenor, chorus, and orchestra included ‘Onaway! Awake Beloved!’— a melodic masterpiece. By 1900 the now three-part Song of Hiawatha began its decades-long position as a firm favourite of choirs all over the English-speaking world.

Members of the Handel Society were wealthy, amateur, and enthusiastic. Balfour had hosted early rehearsals, but the long-serving secretary Philip Webb (a player of the violin and the viola, not the famed architect) managed the society. The social status of the instrumentalists and singers caused difficulties for conductors. August Manns, whose Crystal Palace orchestra had long been a fixture in London’s concert world, conducted the Handel Society from 1892, is recorded as commenting

‘If I hear your first clarinet playing a wrong note, am I to call out, ‘Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford, G.C.B., you are playing A sharp instead of A natural’?’

After three years Manns was replaced by J. Samuel Liddle, who was replaced in 1904 by Coleridge-Taylor, who held the position until his death in 1912.

A scan of the musical press of Edwardian England reveals that the music of Handel was far from rare. There was a Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace every three years, where there were occasions when the choir for Messiah numbered four thousand – and the audience twenty thousand. The Handel Society’s programmes were quite different, and had been from the beginning.

In April 1888 the society presented Samson to eight hundred residents of the Homes for Working Girls. In February 1889 they performed in Bow, a concert witnessed by George Bernard Shaw who had made ‘a hazardous voyage to the east end [of London]’. He noted that all of the second violins were ‘beautiful young ladies’ and that the choir seemed to believe ‘that choral singing is merely a habit caught in church’. His review noted Webb’s request for tenors, horns, and a second bassoon.

A year later the society’s two hundred singers and one hundred instrumentalists presented Handel’s Incidental Music to Alceste, Mozart’s Haffner, and the Bach magnificat. At Liddle’s last concert in May 1904 they performed Jeptha. Coleridge-Taylor conducted Max Bruch’s Scenes from the Odyssey at the Queen’s Hall in May 1905. The Musical Times noted that it ‘lacked intensity of expression, the common fault of London choirs’. Shaw’s verdict was still valid.

The society’s Queen’s Hall concert on 23 May 1906 was under Coleridge-Taylor’s baton, and he conducted Dvorak’s Spectre’s Bride and the premier of his own Kubla Khan.

The Handel Society performed for fashionable London at the Queen’s Hall and St. James’s Hall, and in the semi-slum land of Bow (at the People’s Palace). Coleridge-Taylor continued the policy of reviving Handel’s works and presenting music by others. Mozart’s Requiem and Handel’s Triumph of Time and Truth were presented in early 1907 ‘with much testimony of good intention’ (Musical Times). In May the concert was ‘before a large and fashionable audience’ who listened to works by Schumann, Saint-Saens, and Dvorak. In February 1908 Handel’s Hercules was performed at the People’s Palace; in May Coleridge-Taylor conducted Dvorak’s Stabat Mater and Elgar’s From the Bavarian Highlands at the Queen’s Hall. The Musical Times critic observed

The choir of the society seems to be suffering from the usual choral difficulty in London, that of obtaining a sufficient number of male voices to secure perfect balance of parts, but under Mr. Coleridge-Taylor’s direction an effective interpretation was secured.

The February 1909 People’s Palace concert was Acis and Galatea with ‘full band and chorus’. Tickets cost three pence. The annual Queen’s Hall concert, however, had nothing Handelian: ‘indeed, nothing nearer his period was heard than Brahms’ noted the Musical News. Conducting ‘with strength and alertness’ Coleridge-Taylor directed an enlarged choir, for the New Philharmonic Society of Richmond had joined with the Handel Society to present works by Parry, Stanford, Bizet, Glinka: and Sibelius’s Finlandia.

Coleridge-Taylor conducted the Finnish masterpiece at a performance by the Croydon String-Players’ Club, augmented by seventy professional instrumentalists, in Croydon in May 1909. His conducting skills had been honed with his friends in the String-Players’ Club. He had known many of them a long time, for he had been raised by his mother and blacksmith grandfather in Croydon, within feet of a railway line, downwind of a slaughterhouse. His features proclaimed his African father’s legacy, but Dr Daniel Taylor had returned to Sierra Leone before his birth, and had died in the colonial backwater of the Gambia in 1904, having never seen his composer son. Coleridge-Taylor’s world was quite different to that of typical Handel Society members. He told his first biographer that many of the members spent their holidays in the south of France and his were taken at Westcliff-on-Sea (Southend). He mentioned that once and thereafter ‘I always avoided mention of my holidays’.

Such social distinctions, so powerful in Edwardian England, were cast aside when Coleridge-Taylor rehearsed and conducted the society.

The February 1911 concert at the Queen’s Hall included the conductor’s Bon-Bon Suite and Handel’s Spring and Summer. Fourteen months later the society’s ‘reputation for independence of choice’ was noted by the Musical Times when reviewing the May 1912 Queen’s Hall concert. Works by Beethoven, Bizet, and Schumann were included. The audience ‘as is usual at these concerts, was very numerous’. The singers showed ‘the benefits of their training at the hands of Mr. Coleridge-Taylor’. His hard work and professional skills were deeply respected.

Philip Webb, when he heard that Coleridge-Taylor had died (aged thirty-seven) in September 1912, wrote to his widow

I cannot tell you how much grieved I am at this sad and unexpected news, and how deeply I sympathise with you in your irreparable loss. It is a great loss to our Society, for your husband was an almost ideal Conductor for us, containing as he did with his great musical talent so much personal sympathy and tact. His simple and [2 words illegible] sweet disposition made him a delightful colleague to work with. I have already received several letters from members of the Society, expressing their great sorrow, and I know that relations between him and the Society generally were of a quite unusual cordiality, and that one and all will be mourning for his loss. I am sending a wreath on behalf of the Society. Believe me, yours sincerely, Philip Webb

The Handel Society continued. Its April 1913 concert had Handel’s Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day, Coleridge-Taylor’s Solemn Prelude, and the new conductor Georg (sic) Henschel’s Requiem: the choice reflecting the impact of Coleridge-Taylor’s death.

Vaughan Williams conducted from 1919 to 1921, then Eugene Goossens until 1925. Venues included the Royal College of Music, and in 1928 the London Palladium where Douglas Hopkins conducted Hercules in aid of the National Sunday League. In June 1931 the society gave a concert at University College when the Musical Times noted it existed to maintain ‘the healthy practice of performing music by amateurs’ and praised its choice of non-familiar works. Its last conductor was Reginald Goodall, whose biographer John Lucas noted disliked Handel’s music: but it paid well. One of the members remarked ‘We are gentry, not working class. It is a choir for our friends and relations’. Lucas added – ‘A large number of them lived in Eaton Square’[Belgravia].

The wealthy, high-born Britons who played and sung in the Handel Society, from those initial rehearsals at Balfour’s London home in 1882 to performances under Goodall – in Handel’s Semele in December 1938, the Chandos Te Deum and Beethoven’s seventh symphony in March 1939, and finally the May 1939 performance of Handel’s Joshua – were all having fun. They gave pleasure to London audiences. Their largesse was appreciated by Goodall and other conductors; their willingness to perform from a wide range of concert music, and to revive rare Handel, was all very praiseworthy.

Consider the changes in British society since this era: when a cabinet minister could slip out of parliament to go to a concert of Handel’s music – and a black man could direct the sons and daughters of high society in music-making of a high order.

This article is based on materials gathered for a talk, presented to the London Handel Society, St. George’s church, Hanover Square, London, on 6 May 2003. Philip Webb’s letter is in the archives of the Royal College of Music. My thanks to Oliver Davies.

[Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is profiled at AfriClassical.com, which features a comprehensive Works List and a Bibliography by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma, www.CasaMusicaledeLerma.com. We are collaborating with the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation of the U.K., www.SCTF.org.uk]

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