Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Gramophone.co.uk: 'In the composer's centenary year Andrew Achenbach celebrates Coleridge-Taylor's life and music'

[Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912): Violin Concerto, Legend, Romance; Lorraine McAslan, violin; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Nicholas Braithwaite, conductor; Lyrita SRCD.317 (2007)]

Tue 31st July, 2012

Poor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912): in agreeing to a one-off fee of 15 guineas for the publishing rights to his 1898 cantata Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, he missed out on a fortune. In the years preceding the Great War, Novello sold in excess of 140,000 copies of the vocal score alone, the royalties from which would have secured the young composer and his growing family a far more amenable and stress-free lifestyle. 
Born in Croydon of mixed race to a doctor from Sierra Leone and English mother, young Samuel revealed a talent for the violin and, aided by a local benefactor, found himself at the age of 15 studying the instrument with Henry Holmes at the Royal College of Music. Here he also became a composition student of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and, the following year, Novello published his anthem In Thee, O Lord.
1898 was the breakthrough year. Endorsed by Elgar as 'far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men', Coleridge-Taylor was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival to compose an orchestral work. The resulting Ballade in A minor proves a splendidly ebullient, big-hearted essay featuring a peach of a second subject. It was most warmly received by the audience in Gloucester Cathedral. However, that was nothing as to the sensational impact of the world premiere some three months later of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast. This 50-minute adaptation of words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855) made the 23-year-old a national celebrity overnight and its prodigal fund of melodic riches, narrative flair and sense of wide-eyed wonder never fail to captivate (try the indelible tenor aria 'Onaway! Awake, beloved!'). The cantata's runaway success (by 1904, it had chalked up well over 200 performances on both sides of the Atlantic) spawned two further settings from Longfellow's epic poem, namely The Death of Minnehaha (1899) and Hiawatha's Departure (1900), and the trilogy was published under the title of The Song of Hiawatha. Between 1928 and 1939, all three (together with the Hiawatha ballet music of 1912) were lavishly staged for two weeks every year at the Royal Albert Hall with Sir Malcolm Sargent an avuncular presence on the podium.

Coleridge-Taylor was enormously proud of his African heritage. In 1898, he collaborated with the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar on an 'operatic romance' entitled Dream Lovers, and two years later was a delegate to the inaugural Pan-African Conference held in London. 1904 brought the first of three high-profile visits to the USA, where the composer found himself hailed as a hero among the black community in Washington, D.C. (that same city's African-American Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society had been founded three years previously). He was even received at the White House by the President, Theodore Roosevelt.

Other notable works with a black or African sensibility include the 1901 concert overture Toussaint Louverture (inspired by the eponymous black leader of the Haitian Revolution), an ambitious sequence from 1905 of 24 Negro Melodies for solo piano, Symphonic Variations on an African Air (a powerfully argued, consummately scored and deeply poignant canvas from 1906, based on the spiritual and old slave song, 'I'm troubled in mind'), and, last but not least, The Bamboula, a roistering dance rhapsody first played in June 1910 by the New York Philharmonic (whose members nicknamed its creator-conductor 'the African Mahler') and commissioned by the philanthropist Carl Stoeckel.
Do check out, too, the lovely Violin Sonata (1898) that was championed by the legendary Albert Sammons after the composer's death, as well as the vernally fresh Petite Suite de Concert (1911) – light music of the very highest quality, and crammed full of tunes that lodge themselves securely in the brain. Who knows, perhaps the centenary of his death will prompt some enterprising record company to explore more of his output: how about the shipwreck cantata Meg Blane (1902), choral rhapsody Kubla Khan (1905), incidental music to The Forest of Wild Thyme (1910), A Tale of Old Japan (a 1911 setting of his good friend Alfred Noyes's oriental poem) or his Nordic opera in three acts, Thelma (1907-09), which was finally staged last February by Surrey Opera and is reputed to contain some of his most characteristic and urgently expressive inspiration? 

[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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