Samuel Coleridge- Taylor
CENTENARY MAN : A MEMOIR OF SAMUEL COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912)
By Philip L Scowcroft
As I write in December 2012, it is still a hundred years since the death of Samuel Coleridge- Taylor, a composer of talent who, although he composed a Symphony, a Violin Concerto, a Ballade in A Minor, premiered at the Three Choirs Festival having been given the imprimatur of approval by Edward Elgar, no less, chamber music (a Nonet, a Clarinet Quintet and a String Quartet), mostly dating from his student days at the Royal College of Music where he studied with Stanford, and several cantatas. Of the latter we do not now hear Meg Blane, Kubla Khan and A Tale of Old Japan but for a long period choral societies in the North of England remained faithful to the trilogy, The Song of Hiawatha and during May 2013 the Doncaster Choral Society is to revive its most famous "third", (actually its first third), Hiawatha's Wedding Feast. However his memory is primarily kept green by performances of works which we can regard as diverse examples of light music, of which more in a moment.
He was born in London on 15 August 1875, but his early years, at least, may be reckoned as under-privileged. His father, a black physician, originally from Sierra Leone, deserted Samuel's (white) mother to return to Africa. Samuel's colour was a potential complication, though he did not suffer from colour prejudice as much as we might think. Both during and after his time at the RCM, he received words of encouragement and particularly so after the success of Hiawatha in the years after 1900. By this time he had married Jessie Walmisley, a fellow RCM student, and a son and a daughter, Hiawatha and Gwendolyn Avril, were born in 1900 and 1903. To support his family, Samuel had to take on more work as conductor, teacher and adjudicator than he would no doubt have liked. His need for money may account partly for the fact that so much of his output was light music and more readily saleable. In mid career (1903-08) his creative urge apparently declined. He died on 1 September 1912, aged barely 37, of pneumonia, attributable probably to his non-composing activities and the overwork which came in their wake.
Samuel's attractive lyrical impulse and weaknesses in form and thematic development may also account for his prediliction for lighter forms over symphonic music. Although he reckoned himself to be English he did not eschew negro-based music and introduced its colour and rhythm, proudly we may think, in works like the rhapsody The Bamboula (1910), which retained its popularity up to mid century.
Samuel composed some half dozen incidental scores for the live theatre, most notable being Nero(1906), whose March was used for the 1924 Pageant of Empire, Othello (1911) and Forest of Wild Thyme (also 1911) which yielded Three Dream Dances, Scenes From an Imaginary Ballet and A Christmas Overture which has been heard in recent weeks on Classic FM in a recording conducted by Gavin Sutherland. When he died he was writing a Hiawatha ballet (not musically connected with the choral trilogy) which was completed as two purely orchestral suites, nine movements in all, by the ever-industrious Percy Fletcher.
Coleridge-Taylor made the genre of the light orchestral suite peculiarly his own at least for a time. We must remember that when he died Eric Coates' Miniature Suite, his first concert suite, was only a year old. Samuel had penned Four Characteristic Waltzes, which excitingly showed the flexibility and variety achievable with the same basic rhythm, as did Three Fours. Other suites like Cameos, Contrasts St. Agnes' Eve and Scenes From an Everyday Romance (1900) earned success for a time, but much the most popular, to this day in fact, was Petite Suite de Concert (1911), especially the delicious "Demande et Réponse" which may quite often be heard in either orchestral or piano solo guises. Most, maybe all, of Samuel's suites appeared in piano versions which sold quite well for him though not all were orchestrated by him; Henry Geehl did the honours for Three Fours, Norman O'Neill for Four Characteristic Waltzes; Moorish Tone Pictures (1897), African Suite (1898), Moorish Dance (1904) and Two Oriental Valses came before the exotic music travels of Albert Ketèlbey. Not all Samuel's instrumental miniatures were for piano solo. The violin was his own instrument and this can be seen from the violin/piano essays Two Romantic Pieces (Lament and Merrymaking) Opus 9, Valse Caprice (1898) and, also from 1898, the Gipsy Suite Opus 20 which was fairly recently recorded in an orchestral version. He even penned one or two organ pieces.
The vocal counterpart of light instrumental miniatures was the drawing-room ballad. Coleridge-Taylor's solo songs, upwards of a hundred of them, were mainly of the ballad type. Not perhaps the doleful-sounding albeit shapely, Sorrow Songs, to words by Christina Rossetti, revived in Doncaster, my home town, during 2012, but to exemplify this part of his output I would list the titles of Eleanore, still to be heard occasionally, Big Lady Moon, third of the Five Fairy Ballads of 1909, Sons of the Sea, a favourite of the great Peter Dawson, The Lee Shore, Love's Passing and The Gift Rose. For me, however, his greatest ballad is Onaway, Awake Beloved from Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, the only solo in an otherwise all-choral cantata. Coleridge-Taylor wrote choral miniatures as well as extended cantatas and at least two of these retained their popularity with small choirs throughout the UK for decades: O Mariners Out of the Sunset and, set more memorably by his teacher Stanford, Drake's Drum. The Bon-Bon Suite (1908) for baritone solo chorus and orchestra is a light concert suite with voices added. Sentimental, apparently, but brilliant and gossamer-like, I would love to hear this.
Coleridge-Taylor's lighter music long kept his name alive and arguably still does. One is inclined to doubt whether he would have liked that fact any more than did Sullivan, German and Haydn Wood, to name but three others. Such considerations need not worry us, of course; we have merely to enjoy it.
This article first appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’, issue 195 April 2013.