Saturday, May 18, 2013

Britain’s forgotten genius

Thanks to pressure from Edward Elgar the Three Choirs Festival of Britain offered Samuel Coleridge-Taylor his first commission in 1898, launching his career. The work produced by the 19-year-old in response to this opportunity was his Ballade for orchestra Op.33. It’s a youthful work, full of wonderful high-spirits, passion and warmth, and with tenderness and pathos too. Above all, the expression is genuine and the work is a harbinger of what might come, given time and opportunity. Prior to its first performance, following a rehearsal of the work in London’s Queen’s Hall on a very hot summer afternoon in 1898, with the composer himself conducting, Coleridge-Taylor was surprised and delighted when following sustained applause from the orchestral players he noticed two gentlemen coming forward to offer him a warm handshake for his achievement. They were Sir Arthur Sullivan and Sir Hubert Parry (at the time two of England’s most well known composers).

That same year, 1898, Coleridge-Taylor would write Hiawatha's Wedding-Feast, his most popular work, sealing his future. But today his legacy is still undefined, partly because the successful trilogy of Hiawatha cantatas has overshadowed the rest of his large output, and partly because his tragically early death robbed the music world of a still developing talent. Most importantly the seriousness of his musical expression seems to have been overshadowed by the exaggerated success of Hiawatha as an entertainment piece on the one hand, and the popularity of some of his lighter works on the other. Coleridge-Taylor is a composer in the tradition of Dvořák and Elgar, and his music is sincere and deeply emotional (and not as sentimental as it is sometimes played). The composer’s ‘ideal’ is as far removed as it is possible to get from the contemporary musical trends that were sweeping Europe in France (Debussy) and Germany (Schoenberg) as well as America (ragtime and early jazz) at the beginning of the 20th century. In his lifetime Coleridge-Taylor survived (and even triumphed against) the huge obstacle of being the only black classical composer in a white man's world. Today his legacy faces another massive challenge, this time for ‘idealistic’ reasons, because his music is not (by some critics) seen as fitting in to the expected pigeon holes of early 20th century composition. Coleridge-Taylor was brought up in the European tradition of classical symphonic form as represented by Schumann and Brahms, a great tradition in which he felt completely at home and fully able to express himself. Later in life he began to express a stronger desire to develop the African side of his heritage in his music (hoping to mirror Dvořák's interest in his Bohemian roots, or Grieg’s interest in Nordic culture) but it was still within the framework of his European upbringing. His published letters and essays on music demonstrate his profound thoughts on the state of music in the world, and confirm his idealistic musical approach:

"...few recent compositions really move one - though many of them astonish. It seems as if the composers would wish to be classed with the flying man in his endeavours to 'go one better' than the last, somehow or other, and in many ways much of the music of the period reminds one of the automobile and the airship. It is daring, clever, complex, and utterly mechanical. The question is: should an imaginative Art follow such lines? Should it not rather come from the heart as well as the brain? Of course, a fine technical equipment is a very desirable thing, and nothing of worth can be accomplished without it; but should 'What do you think of my cleverness?' be stamped so aggressively over nearly every score that we hear? The lack of human passion in English music may be (personally I think IS) merely transitory. It is being pushed aside only while the big technical Dreadnought is in its most engrossing stage of development. Soon the builders will have the time to love again - when the turmoil is hushed somewhat - to give the world a few tender and personal touches amidst the strife, which will 'make us feel again also.' "

[Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: "Is Technique Strangling Beauty"
published in the magazine 'The Etude', January, 1911]

Those words have even more meaning today than when they were written 100 years ago. What on earth would Coleridge-Taylor make of Stockhausen, Boulez, and others (talk about 'What do you think of my cleverness?'). Sadly Coleridge-Taylor's admirable optimism turned out to be misplaced.

Coleridge-Taylor’s early death at 37 has left the music world today unsure of how to estimate his talent. Do we judge it for what it was, or what it promised? And it promised a great deal. I am of the strong opinion that we have been robbed of a truly great composer by his early death (had Elgar died at the same age he would have been but a foot note in musical history). Listening to the early Ballade Op.33 it is not an exaggeration to say 19-year-old Coleridge-Taylor was showing more promise than Elgar at the same age (no wonder Elgar was so excited by Coleridge-Taylor's talent). It's also worth remembering, when Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade sounds 'Elgarian' in places, that Elgar had yet to fully develop his own style (having not yet penned the work that would put him on the musical map, the Enigma Variations, let alone works such as his Symphonies and Concertos).

Coleridge-Taylor once said “I want to be nothing in the world except what I am – a musician”. Nevertheless it's impossible to ignore the aspect of his race given the climate of the times he grew up in. Fortunately he encountered few obstacles in his career in England, where the establishment was by and large on his side and within his lifetime he achieved considerable fame and adulation. Of course it would have been a very different story in the United States, and his three visits to the US (in 1904, 1906 and 1910) helped to politicize him, as he witnessed the horrors of institutionalized racism first hand. Before visiting America for the first time in 1904 Coleridge-Taylor had prepared himself for the prejudice he expected to encounter, while at the same time telling his American hosts (the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, an all black choir founded in his honour) that if they could endure these things, so could he. But he insisted there should be an orchestra available for all his US concerts, which by necessity meant he would be conducting white musicians (something that had never been a problem in England, but in the States it was a different matter). When it came down to it only two white Americans walked out on him, letting it be known that it was beneath them to be conducted by a black man! Other examples of racism were encountered, such as the refusal of the New York printer to put his name in the programmes once it was discovered that Coleridge-Taylor was black! But none of this prevented the tour from being anything but a great success, and Coleridge-Taylor was feted by both black and white Americans, was treated as a star wherever he went and hailed as the 'black Mahler', was even invited to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt (who made a good impression on him in his attitude to race) and most importantly, he was embraced by the black community in America as a hero to be placed alongside Frederick Douglass. But Coleridge-Taylor was still shocked by what he saw in the States, particularly some of the conditions endured by black Americans (he describes in his letters the segregation south of Washington, the way people are thrown out of railway carriages, etc.). As a musician Coleridge-Taylor may have had his head in the clouds, but as a person of mixed race living in a predominately white environment he was not under any illusions politically, nor was he anything but proud of his African heritage, and happily joined forces with the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois (author of 'The Souls of Black Folk', a book Coleridge-Taylor devoured as soon as it was published in 1904) and the black American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar who he had met in London in 1896. Coleridge-Taylor played an active role in the Pan African conference in London in 1900 (a conference aimed at demonstrating to European governments the evil of colonization and racism in Africa and the West Indies, promoting the cause of self-government in the colonies, and demanding political and civil rights for African Americans). Coleridge-Taylor was an avid reader, but away from politics he would much rather spend his time reading poetry, about which he was extremely knowledgeable. He also had a tremendous passion for the countryside and wildlife, and whenever he could he would take advantage of the beautiful country walks around where he lived south of London (it wasn't built up in those days and must have been exquisite). As with many composers his long walks seemed to help him find musical ideas. He would also write down (in his music note books) particular bird songs that fascinated him. It goes without saying that he was a devout family man, and many people commented on the particularly close relationship he enjoyed with his daughter Gwendolen [the video at the foot of this blog contains many beautiful photographs of his family].

It would be naïve to assume from all the above that all was idyllic in England and that Coleridge-Taylor didn't encounter racism in his native country; he did, and stories from his daughter make painful and distressing reading today. Most distressing for him was the fact that his (Caucasian) wife Jessie was also a target of abuse. Jessie was the love of his life, he having courted her against mild opposition from her family, finally winning her parents over and receiving their blessing for the union (they married in 1899). But daily life still contained many trials, even with his increasing success. His daughter Gwen records his response to the groups of local youths who would repeatedly shower him with insulting comments about the colour of his skin: “When he saw them approaching along the street he held my hand more tightly, gripping it until it almost hurt".

All that I have read about Coleridge-Taylor shows that not only was he a remarkable musician, he was also a remarkable human being, with not an ounce of malice or hatred to those who abused him. Perhaps if he had lived longer he would have become more active in politics and civil rights. He tended to be shy in character, but he was confident of his musical abilities and he lived more than anything else for his music. Coleridge-Taylor had been a workaholic all his life, his wife saying that he couldn't bear inactivity. The thought of leaving this world while still so young was clearly a huge torment for him (judging from the desperate comments he said to Jessie in the last bed-ridden days of his life) not because of a fear of death, but because of the awareness that he still had so much to say. On the day he died, September 1st 1912, he insisted on looking through his recently completed Violin Concerto, checking the parts and trying to conduct portions of the piece before he finally collapsed. It's a sobering tale today, when so many people sit out half their lives in passive gaze at a television screen.

In the end Coleridge-Taylor's talents transcend both race and epoch: it's time that musicians looked anew at his familiar name and delved a little further beneath the surface of his music, and away from the 'light music' image that has unfairly dogged him for years. His reputation is beginning to grow again, particularly in the United States where the colour of his skin is now an inspiration to a whole new generation of musicians. But when all is said and done, in the words of Coleridge-Taylor scholar Dr Catherine Carr, "the significance of his worth as a composer was over and above such elements as colour, race, gender etc.”.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Ballade for orchestra Op.33 (1898)
played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Grant Llewellyn

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

An English composer who burned out too soon...

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was one of England's most promising composers. Born in London in 1875 his remarkable musical talent emerged very quickly, the violin becoming his main instrument as a child. While a student at the Royal College of Music in London he began composing works that to this day are regarded as beautiful and skillful compositions. Having already caught the attention of composers such as Sullivan and Stanford his big break came when the composer Elgar began supporting his talent, convincing the Three Choirs Festival to commission the young composer. Coleridge-Taylor went on to achieve enormous popularity in the UK for his series of 3 cantatas, 'The Song of Hiawatha' (a setting of Longfellow's poem) while at the same time writing music for the concert hall and theater, and becoming a professor of composition at London's Trinity College of Music and Guildhall School of Music.

Yet he never had the chance to fully develop his remarkable talent. He died tragically young from pneumonia complicated by exhaustion from overwork, at the age of just 37. In the last months of his life he had completed a violin concerto which he never lived to hear, and which showed a new maturity and sense of expression in his style which was never fulfilled. His early death was a huge loss to the musical life of Great Britain, and a potentially important voice had been silenced at a crucial time in classical music as the philosophy of Schoenbergian theory, which would eventually destroy the careers of many composers with outlooks similar to Coleridge-Taylor's, was beginning to emerge.

Despite Coleridge-Taylor's enormous popularity in Britain (for many years hardly a school or college missed the opportunity of performing his Song of Hiawatha) his talent is still undervalued today, with many of his works still awaiting their first recordings. Coleridge-Taylor himself made very little money from his success, having sold the royalty of his Hiawatha trilogy to his publishers for a small one-off payment. The circumstances of his death, leaving behind an impoverished family (for whom King George V took the unusual step of awarding an annual pension) contributed greatly to the subsequent adoption of a system of royalties for composers in the UK.

A short tribute to the English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) with contributions from his daughter, Avril Coleridge-Taylor (recorded in 1974), and excerpts from Hiawatha's Wedding-Feast, The Death of Minnehaha and the Violin Concerto, Op.80.