Coleridge-Taylor: from fame to a footnote

January 30, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

When he died in 1912, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was one of the world's most celebrated black men.

This Afro-British composer, the son of a Sierra Leone-born physician and a white Englishwoman, was the author of "Hiawatha's Wedding Feast," which rivaled Mendelssohn's "Elijah" and challenged Handel's "Messiah" as the the most popular choral work in the English-speaking world. Black men and women everywhere -- from the brilliant, fiery radical W. E. B. DuBois to the pragmatic and conservative Booker T. Washington -- were inspired by his example. Their white brothers and sisters -- from President Theodore Roosevelt to the Queen of England -- were honored to entertain him.

Today, Coleridge-Taylor is little more than a footnote to music history. But the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its resident conductor, Christopher Seaman, will attempt to resurrect his reputation this week. As part of the BSO's celebration of Black History Month, they will perform excerpts from "Hiawatha."

It seems an appropriate time, therefore, to consider how a composer, world-famous long before his premature death at the age of 37, could have been so quickly forgotten.

Although he was a victim of racial prejudice in his lifetime, few composers benefited as Coleridge-Taylor did from influential encouragement, good fortune and personal courage.

As a teen-ager he came to the attention of Sir George Grove (founder of the famed Grove Dictionary of Music), then the director of the Royal College of Music in London. After admitting him as a student, Grove sent the youngster to study with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, one of England's best-known composers and composition teachers, whose other students included Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Stanford was devoted to Coleridge-Taylor. When he overheard another student make a hurtful remark about him, Stanford told Coleridge-Taylor that he had "more music in [his] little finger" than the other student had in his whole body.

Coleridge-Taylor, whose own father had abandoned him as a child, returning to Sierra Leone because prejudice made it impossible to find work as a doctor, all but worshiped Stanford.

While he was still a student of Stanford, Coleridge-Taylor's work was noticed by Britain's greatest composer, Sir Edward Elgar. When invited to contribute an orchestra-only work to the prestigious Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester, Elgar wrote the festival's committee: "I am sorry I am too busy to do so. I wish, wish, wish you would ask Coleridge-Taylor to do it. He still wants recognition, and he is far and away the cleverest fellow amongst the young men. Please don't let your committee throw away the chance of doing a good act."

was all but impossible to say no to the composer of the "Enigma Variations." The result was Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade in Minor, a work that made the 22-year-old student famous. Within the year, the first performance of "Hiawatha's Wedding Feast," a setting of Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" that he had been working on under Stanford, was to make Coleridge-Taylor a household name.

It would be nice to say Coleridge-Taylor was a great composer who awaits rediscovery. But in fact he was simply a talented composer -- one with a superb ear for orchestral effects, for color and for sweet and sincerely intended melody -- whose music did not possess enough individuality to survive its time.

Nonetheless, Coleridge-Taylor was a genuinely wonderful human being. He overcame soul-killing prejudice with dignity, grace and strength. When an English newspaper reported on a conference on "The Negro Problem in North America," Coleridge-Taylor responded in a letter to the editor: "It is the little man who looks for the worst -- and finds it. . . . it was an arrogant 'little' white man who dared to say to the great Dumas: 'And I hear you actually have negro blood in you!' 'Yes,' said the writer; 'my father was a mulatto, his father a negro, and his father a monkey. My ancestry began where yours ends!' "

When he was invited to the United States for the first of three successful tours, his host sent a letter warning about the prejudice he might encounter.

"I am a great believer in my race," he wrote back, "and I never lose an opportunity of letting my white friends know it."

Nothing influenced Coleridge-Taylor more than hearing the Fisk University Jubilee Singers perform African-American spirituals in the late 1890s, or his reading W. E. B. DuBois' groundbreaking "The Souls of Black Folk" a few years later. He told friends that DuBois' writing revealed the "vast sigh of a buried continent."

Coleridge-Taylor desired "to do for negro music what Brahms has done for Hungarian folk-music, Dvorak for the Bohemian and Grieg for the Norwegian." Like Dvorak, he believed that the source of great music was the folk songs of a people. He was probably influenced in this regard by his teacher Stanford, who encouraged his students to go outside traditional classical music, by exploring medieval and folk musics.

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