Over the past few years, the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor has been reassessed. A lot of it has effectively been rediscovered with numerous online performances greatly assisting those who want to explore more about this composer and his legacy.

Through the prism of some equally unknown scores, join us on a brief tour and see what you think.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, 1875-1912 

508px-Samuel_Coleridge-Taylor,_photographed_by_Henry_John_Kempsell_
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor photographed in 1901. (National Archives via Wikipedia)

Throughout his all-too-short adult life, Coleridge-Taylor made an impression as a composer. In 1898, Edward Elgar described him as

far and away the cleverest fellow amongst the young men.

This is all the more impressive when you think of the prejudice and barriers a mixed-race young man must have faced in late Victorian and Edwardian England. The same year, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was premiered to considerable praise and enthusiasm. helped by the fact the poem itself was hugely popular. Coleridge-Taylor’s presence on the musical scene continued. As a library, we took note, buying (mostly) piano pieces and arrangements of his orchestral works as they came out.

However, very little of his music ever made it into library’s catalogue as it changed into first, microfiche, and then the online version we use today. This mirrors the later disuse Coleridge-Taylor’s music suffered from. Changing musical tastes and the lack of a high-profile champion meant performances and availability of his music became scarce. Only Hiawatha and the Petite Suite de Concert hovered on the fringes of the accepted classical music canon.

Over the past 10-15 years, Coleridge-Taylor’s music has come more to the fore. Chi-Chi Nwanoku and Chineke! have done much to promote his music as part of their mission to tell a fully-inclusive history of Western classical music. They are one amongst many now seeking to explore his music and cultural legacy.

6 Sorrow songs. When I am dead, my dearest

Let’s start with something for voice. A lot of our Coleridge-Taylor scores are in fact several separate publications bound together (a common practice at the time). This volume is no exception. Three songs, op. 29 and Southern love songs share the same binding as the Sorrow songs. It’s worth noting that advertising by Augener, the publisher, on a back cover runs to 18 titles by Coleridge-Taylor, all described in some detail.

The song cycle sets poems by Christina Rossetti. Here’s the opening of ‘When I am dead, my dearest’.

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:

African suite. Danse negre

Looking at Augener’s list again, they include a quote from The Times. Strange to think of a national newspaper reviewing printed contemporary music. 

…compositions of such grace, fancy, and distinction as those of Mr Coleridge-Taylor must at once arrest attention.

Written for piano in 1898, this suite shares a binding with 2 Moorish tone-pictures, Six Negro melodies, and an arrangement of Christmas overture. About that time, Coleridge-Taylor met with African-American poet, Paul-Laurence Dunbar . Dunbar encouraged the composer to concentrate on his own African heritage. African Suite was one of the first pieces to emerge. ‘Danse negre’ is the final movement. The link is for a version orchestrated by the composer.

Forest scenes. The phantom tells of his longing

Coleridge-Taylor Forest scenes
‘Forest scenes’

Is everything a composer produces automatically good? The answer has to be ‘no’. However that doesn’t mean those works which lack stature aren’t of interest. Forest scenes is a suite of piano pieces with a romantic, fey theme. Suitable for Edwardian times maybe, but less so nowadays. 

A review in Gramophone Magazine from 2013 for the CD featured in the link, is less than enthusiastic.

Very little of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s piano music has been recorded. That said, were I adjudicating the entries for some global catalogue of music to be admitted to the standard repertoire, I would have to mark most of what is played here a ‘fail’.

More intriguing are the four Forest Scenes, ‘characteristic pieces for piano’ with period titles like ‘The lone forest maiden’ and ‘The phantom tells his tale of longing’.

See what you think.

Six Negro melodies. Deep river

Coleridge Taylor Six Negro melodies
Six Negro melodies

From the same volume as African Suite, comes this collection of Negro Melodies. It’s worth listing the contents:

  1. At the dawn of day (South East Africa)
  2. Warrior’s song (South Africa)
  3. Deep river (America)
  4. Don’t be weary, traveller (America)
  5. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child (America)
  6. They will not lend me a child (South East Africa)

In each case, the original melody is quoted together with the words, whether they’re in English or not. So like Dvorak, Bartok, or Vaughan Williams, Coleridge-Taylor connected with the folk music of his heritage. Yet these pieces are virtually unknown.

Here’s the original version of ‘Deep river’.

Followed by a recent arrangement for strings:

The Song of Hiawatha

Coleridge Taylor Hiawatha ballet suite
Themes from ‘Hiawatha’ arranged as a ballet suite, then re-arranged for piano

Despite the title of this post, you can’t really avoid The Song of Hiawatha when talking about Coleridge-Taylor. As we’ve already mentioned, the first section, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, was hugely popular both in the UK and USA. Publishers are always keen to exploit a popular work. Returning to the publisher’s list from earlier, here’s a comment from The Musical Times attached to Hiawathan Sketches, a piece for violin and piano:

We cannot find space to more than generally express our astonishment at a composer barely out of his teens who produces work after work showing remarkable originality in almost every bar.

Hiawatha remained popular after the composer’s death. So where does our score fit in? From 1924 until the outbreak of World War 2, the trio of choral works plus specially arranged ballet music were performed regularly in the Royal Albert Hall. The performances involved scenery, costumes, and dancing – hence the ballet music. And if you wanted to experience some of the music at home, piano arrangements were still a popular way of achieving that.

No obvious recording of the ballet music, so here’s the opening overture.

In exploring the composer’s works nowadays, Hiawatha doesn’t take centre stage. Instead, enterprising scholars and performers are taking the opportunity to examine all Coleridge-Taylor’s music, and that can only be good.