Sunday, November 18, 2018 Lenny Henry: 'Classical music belongs to us all.'

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
(Hulton Getty)

 ‘Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s compositions are dynamic, bold, incredibly melodic and immediately accessible. I was blown away’ … Lenny Henry in his programme Our Classical Century. 
Photograph: Lion TV/BBC 

November 14, 2018

Lenny Henry: 'Classical music belongs to us all. Just look at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor'

I never let myself forget that I’m really lucky in my work to be able to discover so many people and places, and to have the opportunity to bring some of their stories to new audiences. That’s what all of us, as writers, actors and comedians, set out to do – shine a light on new perspectives. So it was fascinating this year to find that one of these stories challenged my own set of stereotypes about classical music.

Over the past few months I have been enthralled and captivated by the story of a man from Croydon in south London who died more than 100 years ago and who wrote one of the biggest musical hits of the 20th century. He was a total genius – a bit like Prince, but for late 19th-century London rather than 1980s California – and his name was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Until this year, the only time I’d previously heard of him was in a meeting for a programme pitch for a biopic on the composer back in the 90s. I’m sad that we didn’t go ahead and make it.

Young Samuel was brought up by his mother and her extended family in Croydon. He never met his doctor father, Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, who was originally from Sierra Leone and had come here to study medicine in London. You may be wondering about his name. Samuel’s mother, Alice Hare Martin, named her son after Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet. Oh, those Victorians!

The family clubbed together to pay Samuel’s fees at the Royal College of Music, which he entered at 15 as a violin scholar. But the violin was set to one side and composition took centre stage and he was taken under the wing of the composer and conductor Charles Villiers Stanford, who also mentored a generation of big-name composers, including Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Frank Bridge. For two years running, Coleridge-Taylor won the RCM’s Lesley Alexander composition prize and was championed by Edward Elgar, who recommended the talented young composer for a major commission – an orchestral work for the Three Choirs festival, his Ballade in A Minor, opus 33.

The thing I like about Coleridge-Taylor is that he fought adversity to reach the top. He suffered racial abuse at school – apparently he even had his hair set on fire – but remained dignified. His compositions are dynamic, bold, incredibly melodic and immediately accessible. I was blown away. And I wasn’t the only one. He was known as the “African Mahler” and his success stretched far and wide.

In the US, he was a household name in his lifetime, and travelled there by invitation of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society of Washington DC in 1904, and again in 1906 and 1910. The US marines band were engaged for his first performance and 2,700 people were in the audience, two-thirds of whom were black. He went on to compose Twenty Four Negro Melodies and Five Choral Ballads after that visit. He became interested in interpreting African American melodies, writing: “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk music, Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro melodies.” When success hit, he used it to tell stories about his racial origins in a musical way that might uplift others.

His best known work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, part of the cantata trilogy The Song of Hiawatha, premiered in 1898 to huge acclaim, and went on to play, with the other two parts in a semi-staged version, at the Royal Albert Hall for a fortnight in June every year for almost 30 years in the interwar years. (The first RAH performance was conducted by his son, who he named Hiawatha, in 1924.) “Hiawatha season” became part of the national culture – families would come to see it in fancy dress with feather headdresses, embroidered tunics, and their hair in plaits. But Coleridge-Taylor never got to enjoy his success – he died tragically young, aged 37, of pneumonia in 1912 – illness said to have been brought on by overwork. Nor did his family enjoy the financial fruits of Hiawatha’s success – the composer had sold the publishing rights to it to Ivor Novello’s company for a low flat fee.

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