Revered as one of Britain’s greatest black composers, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is most remembered for his choral masterpiece Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.
Through the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage audio preservation project, a recording of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast performed at the 28th Aldeburgh Festival in 1975 has recently been digitally preserved at Norfolk Record Office. In this blog we will explore the life of this prominent composer, and the trilogy of Hiawatha cantatas that brought him international critical acclaim.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn, London, an area just around the corner from Fetter Lane which was described by the writer Charles Dickens as being “the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner”. It is thought that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was named after the famous poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and from the age of five Coleridge-Taylor showed his own artistic talents when starting to learn the violin. His musical gift quickly became apparent, and when he turned fifteen, he was accepted into the Royal College of Music initially as a violinist. After two years, he changed his direction of study to composition, and under the guidance of Charles Stanford (one of the founding professors of the Royal College of Music), began to develop as a skilful composer.
Surrounded by blooming musical talent, many of Coleridge-Taylor’s early concerts took place at the Royal College of Music and featured instrumental performances from his fellows, including the composers Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Coleridge-Taylor’s talents were clear and well nurtured, and in the face of racial prejudice he was defended by those around him: when overhearing a racial insult towards Coleridge-Taylor from a fellow student, tutor Charles Stanford declared that Coleridge-Taylor had “more music in his little finger” than the other student had in “his whole body”.
Word began to spread of the talented young composer. August Jaeger, an editor at the London based publishing company Novello & Co was tipped off about Coleridge-Taylor’s work even before it was publicly performed, and Novello’s published the first of a series of Coleridge-Taylor’s anthems. Coleridge-Taylor won the Lesley Alexander composition prize two years running (1895 and 1896). His first major commission came upon the recommendation of the composer Edward Elgar, who proposed Coleridge-Taylor for a commission by the Three Choirs Festival, describing Coleridge-Taylor as “still wanting recognition”, and “far away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men”. Coleridge-Taylor premiered his melodic piece Ballade in A Minor at the 1898 Three Choirs Festival, gaining immediate success.
In 1898 Coleridge-Taylor composed what would become his most renowned work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. The piece was inspired by a poem The Song of Hiawatha written by Henry Longfellow, which relates the fictional tale of an Ojibwe warrior named Hiawatha and the tragedy of his love for Minnehaha, a Dakota woman. Coleridge-Taylor was the first composer to use the already popular poem as inspiration for a musical work, and the piece became an immediate success, first premiering at the Royal College of Music. The composer Arthur Sullivan, although terminally ill, insisted upon attending: “I’m always an ill man now, my boy, but I’m coming to hear your music tonight even if I have to be carried”.
Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was a step away from heavily serious or religious choral works, instead combining light tuneful melodies with adventurous narrative, and exotic costumes of feathers and animal skins which captured the public imagination.
The work was internationally acclaimed, touring three times in the United States despite the black community’s ongoing battle against racism. In an age where amateur choirs and sheet music were a key part of popular culture, hundreds of thousands of copies of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast were sold worldwide. However, despite being a pivotal work in Coleridge-Taylor’s career, the piece did not lead him to financial prosperity. Having had no conception of just how successful the piece would be, Coleridge-Taylor sold the work outright for a sum of £25 15s, meaning that he did not financially benefit from its later success.
Coleridge-Taylor wrote two sequels to Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, The Death of Minnehaha (October 1899) and Hiawatha’s Departure (March 1900). These two subsequent works however, did not receive the same acclaim and were criticised by former champions of his work including August Jaeger and Edward Elgar.
Coleridge-Taylor was a family man, married to fellow Royal College of Music graduate Jessie Sarah Fleetwood Walmisley, and father to a son (Hiawatha) and daughter (Gwendolen, later Avril), both of whom went on to have their own musical careers. Coleridge-Taylor continued to work prolifically to support his family, composing and conducting, and teaching at institutions including the Trinity College of Music (1903), and Crystal Palace School of Art and Music (1905). He was received at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt during his first tour of America in 1904, which was a rare event at the time for a man of African descent. However, despite his success and fame, his private life was not exempt from racial harassment, both himself and his family being targets of racial abuse.
Coleridge-Taylor’s life was tragically short. On 1st September 1912 he died of pneumonia at the age of 37. It is thought that overwork was a contributing factor, and his death provoked warm tributes in the press, and a funeral procession through Croydon that was lined for three and a half miles by crowds with their heads bared. A memorial concert produced £1440 for the family, a substantial sum when Coleridge-Taylor’s annual income in the year of his death was estimated at less than £200. His death revealed to the music world the fact that Coleridge-Taylor and his family did not receive any royalties from the hugely commercial Hiawatha’s Wedding, a scandal which assisted with the development of The Performing Rights Society who worked to put in place a legislation on rights and royalties.
The first version of Coleridge-Taylor’s final commission, Violin Concerto, is believed to have been lost in the same year as his death, when it went down with the RMS Titanic on its way to the US premiere.
Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast continued to be hugely popular after Coleridge-Taylor’s death, with ten seasons of a large costumed ballet version running at the Royal Albert Hall between 1928 and 1939. Audiences flocked to see the spectacular large-scale performances, attending in fancy dress of feathers and bows and arrows, and joining in with the better-known numbers.
Following the end of the Second World War Coleridge-Taylor’s music largely disappeared from the public sphere, a shift in popular music and the decline of amateur choral-tradition changing the atmosphere and public appetite. In 1975 Coleridge-Taylor became the first black recipient of a blue heritage plaque, which was erected on his former home at 30 Dagnall Park, South Norwood.
Today Samuel Coleridge-Taylor continues to be highly regarded within musical circles, his talents reflected by the huge successes and quantities of compositions achieved during his short life.
These extract of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast are from the Norfolk Record Office sound archives and have been digitally preserved through the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage audio preservation project. They are excerpts from a recording of a broadcast of a 1975 performance at the 28th Aldeburgh Festival, performed by the Aldeburgh Festival Singers and English Chamber Orchestra at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk.