Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was only in his early twenties and not long graduated from the Royal College of Music when his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast propelled him to international fame. A setting of verses drawn from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, the 1898 choral-orchestral work by the Afro-English composer proved immensely popular with performers and audiences alike—on both sides of the Atlantic.
“He was a mega-star,” says Charles Elford, author of Black Mahler: The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story. “And I think one of the things that was so popular about him was at the time there were choral societies all over the country, and I think they were probably getting a little bit sick of singing things like Handel’s Messiah year after year. So, when a wonderful piece of choral music came along with sort of a secular background to it that was fun to sing and easy to sing, it just took off. It took on a life of its own. It was very, very new at the time. And it was hugely popular.”
The immediate popularity of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast led Coleridge Taylor to write two additional settings of Longfellow’s poem within the span of as many years: The Death of Minnehaha and Hiawatha’s Departure. The composer would also add an overture to his Song of Hiawatha trilogy.
“It’s difficult to know why, but he was clearly very inspired by the poem,” Elford says. “I think it’s a very musical poem in its inherent rhythm. And it suited his musical writing style as well.”
More than the musical qualities of Longfellow’s poem might have made it a perfect match for Coleridge-Taylor, Elford suggests. According to those who knew the composer, there was a certain resonance with the title character of The Song of Hiawatha, too.
“Later on, people very often likened [Coleridge-Taylor] to his hero,” Elford says. “One of the key points of the Hiawatha story is not only his marriage to Minnehaha, her sudden death, and then his departure to the otherworld, but during his life in this poem, Hiawatha brought together the warring tribes of America at the time. I think many people saw Coleridge-Taylor as doing a similar thing but through his music. He united people—different classes, different races, different ages, different genders—somehow he brought people together. And I think that was his big gift.”
Elford says that Coleridge-Taylor became a cultural hero in the United States, where he toured three times in the early 1900’s. The enthusiasm for his music, especially among African-American ensembles, was such that a choral society in Washington, D.C. was named in his honor. He also conducted the U.S. Marine Band and received a private audience with President Theodore Roosevelt. And it was in America that white commentators described the barrier-breaking figure as the “African Mahler” for his conducting style, which they found similar to Gustav Mahler’s.
Coleridge-Taylor collaborated with a number of the era’s leading African-American literary figures and intellectuals, including Paul Laurence Dunbar, W. E. B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington. Washington, who described Coleridge-Taylor as “a man of the highest aesthetic ideals,” even wrote a preface to the composer’s 24 Negro Melodies, Op. 59—a compositional undertaking that Washington found “especially gratifying.”
“Coleridge-Taylor himself said that what Brahms did with Hungarian folk music, and what Dvořák did for Bohemian folk music, and what Grieg did for the Norwegian folk music—this is what he tried to do with these African-American spiritual songs of that slave generation,” Elford says.
From sets of solo piano pieces such as 24 Negro Melodies to choral-orchestral works on the scale of The Song of Hiawatha, Coleridge-Taylor left a considerable musical legacy behind him when he died of pneumonia at age 37 in 1912. For a while, his name remained prominent in concert halls.
“I think the last big production of Hiawatha—the trilogy—was in 1953—as part of the coronation celebrations of our current queen,” Elford says. “So really from 1913 right up until then, the centerpiece of the Royal Albert Hall’s summer program was an epic production of Hiawatha, starting off with the overture, the marriage, the Death of Minnehaha, and finally ending up with Hiawatha’s Departure.”
According to Elford, these productions of Coleridge-Taylor’s work were elaborate. "They had a cast of hundreds, actors, dancers, a massive orchestra,” he says. “They had this backdrop that was slung from one side of the stage to the other which depicted an Edwardian dream of an idyllic Native American life with teepees and waterfalls. There was a lake. It was just epic. And this ran year after year, but really after the early 1950’s, they stopped.”
For Elford, the waning popularity of Coleridge-Taylor’s music in the middle of the 20th century is a phenomenon that raises questions.
“I have to ask myself why has he been forgotten,” Elford says. “Why do we remember names like Ralph Vaughan Williams, who he was at college with, but who was, you know, not a patch on Coleridge-Taylor at the time. Coleridge-Taylor was seen as the star pupil, above people like Holst who he studied with. Why do we remember names like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar and we don’t remember names like Coleridge-Taylor? And I have to say—the only conclusion I can draw is that somewhere along the line it was because of his race. I don’t know that for a fact. It’s always hard to know. Music does go in and out of fashion. He was conscious of that himself. He talked about the ebb and flow of musical taste.”
When it comes to Coleridge-Taylor’s legacy, a turning of the tides may be underway once more. “He really doesn’t deserve the obscurity that he has now,” Elford says. “And I think that something is beginning to change. There’s an orchestra called Chineke! and they start every one of their recitals with a piece by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.”
Groups such as the Catalyst Quartet, in collaboration with pianist Stewart Goodyear and clarinetist Anthony McGill, have also brought recent attention to the music of Coleridge-Taylor. Their album Uncovered: Vol. 1, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was released earlier this month by Azica and features recordings of several chamber works by the composer.
In the scholarly realm, the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston presented a centennial celebration of Coleridge-Taylor in 2012, featuring performances of his works, lectures, and panel discussions about the composer.
The state of South Carolina has also played host to Coleridge-Taylor revivals. The 2017 Colour of Music Festival presented a performance of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast as well as the Overture to The Song of Hiawatha at Charleston’s Gaillard Center. Festival founder and artistic director Lee Pringle says that the Colour of Music’s performance of Coleridge-Taylor’s cantata was a meaningful moment for him.
“The highlight for me about that particular evening was having children from the Charleston Development Academy. It’s a charter school in a low-income area of downtown Charleston very close to the Citadel Military College campus,” Pringle says. “Those children were our guests in the audience, and many of them—this was their first time seeing a symphonic work. And it brought a lot of joy to my heart to know that there were young Black kids at an age like I was when music was introduced into my life in that way—to go to their first concert and the major work on the program that they had in their hands was of a gentleman that looked like them. He literally has what we would call an Afro in his picture—one of the pictures of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. So that really touched my heart and it was a very, very transcendent moment for me.”
Like Pringle, Elford finds Coleridge-Taylor’s life story a moving one. “‘Too young to die: his great simplicity, his happy courage in an alien world, his gentleness, made all that knew him love him,’” Elford says, reading the lines inscribed on Coleridge-Taylor’s gravestone. “And I think that really just sums him up. He was not only a great composer. He was not only a great musician. He was not only a great activist. He was not only great at bringing people together. But I think he was [also] just a thoroughly nice bloke.”
“May he go from strength to strength, Elford says. “I think maybe it’s time that we have a little bit of a renaissance and that he came back into the public consciousness a little bit.”
In this Sonatas & Soundscapes special feature that aired Monday, February 15th, South Carolina Public Radio’s Bradley Fuller speaks with author Charles Elford about the life, music, and legacy of composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Fuller also hears from Lee Pringle, founder and artistic director of the Colour of Music Festival, and shares recordings of 2017 festival performances of excerpts from Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, including the aria "Onaway! Awake, Beloved!" sung by tenor Rodrick Dixon, as well as the Overture to The Song of Hiawatha. Kazem Abdullah conducts the festival orchestra and chorus for the performance.