Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Born Feb. 27, 1807, Wrote Poems Which Became 'Hiawatha Trilogy' of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

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

[Above: This replica of the white marble bust of Longfellow in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, London, England, is found in the Brown Research Library at Maine Historical Society, Portland, Maine. Still image from the video by Richard Kane in "Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and His Music in America, 1900–1912."]

[Above: Rodrick Dixon, as seen in "Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and His Music in America," sings a number of Coleridge-Taylor songs during The Longfellow Choral Festival, March 16 & 17, in Merrill Auditorium, among them, Coleridge-Taylor's setting of Longfellow's poem, "The Arrow and The Song," one of SCT's earliest student compositions. Rod's reading will be from a Coleridge-Taylor manuscript previously thought lost. Thanks to Jonathan Butcher, Artistic Director of Surrey Opera, for finding this for us.]

The Longfellow Chorus
Portland, Maine
February 20, 2013

The whole poem is in praise of a certain lady, who "———— was rich and gave up all/To break the iron bands/Of those who waited in her hall/And labored in her lands." No doubt, it is a very commendable and very comfortable thing, in the Professor, to sit at ease in his library chair, and write verses instructing the southerners how to give up their all with a good grace . . ..—Edgar Allan Poe's criticism of "She Dwells by Great Kenhawa's Side ["The Good Part that shall not be taken away"], one of Longfellow's Poems on Slavery. From the Aristidean, April 1845.

Dear Mr. Hilyer,
. . .Also, the second number of my choral ballads ["She Dwells by Great Kenhawa's Side," from Longfellow's Poems on Slavery] should be for solo quartet, if possible, you have three soloists [Harry T. Burleigh, baritone, Estella Pickney Clough, soprano, and J. Arthur Freeman, tenor], — is a good contralto to be had. . .?—Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, letter to Andrew Hilyer, co-founder of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, Sept. 16, 1904 

Born today, February 27, 206 years ago, in a house (now vanished) not far from today's Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal in Portland, Maine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his poetry have influenced events and the lives of countless people around the world.

Some of you will recognize that I've repeated a quotation from my July newsletter: Edgar Allan Poe's criticism of Longfellow's poem on slavery, "The Good Part that shall not be taken away," otherwise known as "She Dwells by Great Kenhawa's Side," published in 1842. 

There is a reason for this. At 1 PM, Sunday, March 17, during our pre-Hiawatha-concert recital of Coleridge-Taylor songs and choruses, you will get the chance to hear Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's solo quartet version of the poem that Edgar Allan Poe, a defender of slavery, ceremoniously trashed.

Coleridge-Taylor composed his musical version of "She Dwells by Great Kenhawa's Side" for the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society of Washington, D. C. The piece — as you can tell from Coleridge-Taylor's letter to Andrew Hilyer, also quoted above — was too difficult for the large chorus, and so the task of singing the premiere on November 16 and 17,1904, was given to three star soloists, among them, Harry T. Burleigh, baritone, and an alto chosen from the choral society membership.

That was not the only aspect of the premiere that was distinctive: the orchestra accompaniment to "She Dwells by Great Kenhawa's Side" was played by the orchestra of the U. S. Marine Band under the baton of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor — the last time a guest conductor would lead "The President's Own" until 1998.

Kenhawa's Side has become part of the mythology of Coleridge-Taylor — and a few people feel very passionate about it — because the only known copies of the orchestra score and parts, published by Breitkopf and Härtel, were destroyed during the urban bombing of the Second World War. 

Thus, our four soloists, Angela Brown, soprano, Rodrick Dixon, tenor, Karla Scott, mezzo-soprano and Robert Honeysucker, baritone, will perform the work with piano, and not orchestra, in Merrill Auditorium on March 17.

But a few further words need to be said about Longfellow and slavery. "She Dwells by Great Kenhawa's Side" is a poem that anticipates the Emancipation Proclamation by 21 years. It is a poem that may well have been based on the life of Angelina Grimké, one of those young wealthy southerners who "gave up their all with good grace," as Poe writes. Those of you who watched "The Abolitionists" on PBS's Great American Experience will recognize Angelina Grimké as the young women who rebels against her slave-owning family in the opening episode. 

Hundreds of young people may have been inspired to help educate the freed slaves after reading Longfellow's "She Dwells by Great Kenhawa's Side" Prominent among those was Charlotte Forten Grimké, an educator and African-American anti-slavery activist, who married Angelina's nephew. And the young W. E. B. Du Bois taught school in the rural south while studying at Fisk University.

Of further interest is Longfellow's poem, "The Building of the Ship," (1849), a pro-Union, "ship as state" poem that was an inspiration to Abraham Lincoln during his presidency.

All of this is to say that Longfellow's influence on American society was enormous. During The Longfellow Choral Festival in Merrill Auditorium, you will hear five musical settings of Longfellow's poetry by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor — one of those, Hiawatha, is four hours long, and so I think that counts as a few extra.

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