Saturday, 3 August 2013

Coleridge-Taylor Hiawatha Three Choirs Festival

The Song of Hiawatha, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor at Gloucester Cathedral, highlight of this year's Three Choirs Festival. The Three Choirs Festival is the world's oldest music festival.  For over three hundred years, the choirs of the cathedrals of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester have been coming together to sing. In many ways, British music was defined by the Three Choirs Festival well into the mid 20th century: it is the epicentre of a grand tradition. Hearing Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha here was significant, because the Festival was instrumental in bringing the composer to prominence. While still a student, Coleridge-Taylor came to the attention of August Jaeger and Edward Elgar. The Three Choirs Festival gave him his first big commission in 1897.  Hiawatha's Wedding Feast followed soon after, then the full Song of Hiawatha. By the age of 25, Coleridge-Taylor was a resounding success.

Coleridge-Taylor is sometimes called "The Black Mahler" but it's a silly marketing gimmick. It's musically illiterate. Coleridge-Taylor didn't conduct opera and didn't write symphonies. The Song of Hiawatha sits firmly in the oratorio tradition. If anything, Coleridge-Taylor was the "Black Elgar". The Three Choirs Chorus sang with such fervour that the Elgarian aspects of the score shone with great conviction, even if the words were a little indistinct.  But what joy it must have been for them to tackle this strange, almost hypnotic chant, and words like Pau-puk-Keewis, Chibiabos, Shaugodaya, Kuntassoo and Iagoo! Hiawatha is a Grand Sing and needs to be done on this grand scale.

The soloists stand forth from the chorus. Twenty years ago, Bryn Terfel sang the baritone part for the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera, under William Alwyn. He was brilliant, defining the whole piece with his presence, all the more striking because he sounded so young, No-one could compare, though Benedict Nelson did his best. Robin Tritschler sang the tenor part, negotiating the cruelly high cry "Awake ! my beloved" with ease. Hye-Youn Lee sang the soprano part with exceptional freshness and vitality. She's a singer we should be hearing a lot more of.

Orchestrally, The Song of Hiawatha is rousing. London's Philharmonia Orchestra played for Peter Nardone as if they were playing grand opera. The horn call that introduces the piece and runs throughout suggested Wagner. Both Siegfried and Hiawatha are Noble Savages, setting out on voyages of discovery. The pounding timpani, however, suggest the type of drums white people assumed Red Indians would play. They also anchor the orchestra in a way percussion would not perhaps control symphonic form for many years to come. The Song of Hiawatha is oratorio, but also influenced by new European influences. Englishmen didn't really write opera until Britten's Peter Grimes in 1948.The Philharmonia were much livelier and more vivid than the WNO Orchestra on the recording.

Although Hiawatha hands his people over to missionaries to be civilized, it doesn't sit well with the pious religious values of its time. Even Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, completed two years after Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, was considered racy in many circles because of its Catholic connections. But Hiawatha is important, not just for its exotic subject. Coleridge-Taylor may have chosen Longfellow's text because of its unique syntax, imitating the repetitive chant of oral traditions. "By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, by the shining Big Sea Water". Even the stange names come over like incantation. For a musician, this syntax translates into musical form. Coleridge-Taylor adapts the syntax into short rhythmic cells. Coleridge-Taylor is experimenting, tentatively, with new form. How he would have responded to Stravinsky, to Picasso, to Diaghilev and to Ravel!

There are lyrical passages in Hiawatha that evoke the freshness and wonder of Dvorák's Symphony From the New World, written only five years before, and definitely "new" music. Yet Coleridge-Taylor's style is distinctively his own.  At this stage, Vaughan Williams, though slightly older, was still under the thumb of Charles Villiers Stanford and Delius was yet to find himself. Unlike, say, Granville Bantock, whose exoticism operated like fancy dress costume, Coleridge-Taylor absorbed alien ideas into his very artistic core. He listened to Black American music and adapted it to create something original. Years later Bartók would turn to Hungarian folk music to create new music, but Coleridge-Taylor was well on the way earlier. Perhaps he was attracted to Black music as a kind of atavistic quest for identity, since he never knew his father. But every time he looked in the mirror, he must have been reminded  that part of who he was remained a mystery. Vaughan Williams's later discovery of English folk song seems very tame in comparison.

When Coleridge-Taylor collapsed on West Croydon railway station, dying a few days later aged only 37, British music lost a true original, perhaps, even, its greatest hope after Elgar. He should not be judged by the colour of his skin, but it's an inescapable part of what he means to us today in multicultural Britain. He's probably also influential in the United States where he was welcomed into the White House by the President, at a time when blacks entered only by the back door. When Coleridge-Taylor was born in 1875, being illegitimate was scandalous. Even though he wasn't "deprived", and there weren't enough Black people around for prejudice to develop beyond curiosity, Coleridge-Taylor would have had to live with other people's stereotypes, however veiled. So I hope we'll be able to get away from the Brittish music ghetto and the "Black Mahler" cliché and respect Coleridge-Taylor in a wider music and social history context.

Please see my piece "Who was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor" which describes Jeffrey Green's well written and well researched biography of the composer. "what emerges from Jeffrey Green's book is a full and vivid portrait of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor himself.  Because there's so much genuine information about the composer, his music and the world he lived in, there is no need for fantasy. We have enough here that we can "feel" what Coleridge-Taylor might have been like, and understand him as a human being." The book is not cheap but is the essential authority. 


Charles Elford said...

As reluctant as I am, as a historical novelist, to highlight historical inaccuracies in the works of others, I am compelled to correct the fundamental and strenuously presented misunderstanding in your article regarding Coleridge-Taylor’s nickname the ‘Black Mahler’.
In June 1910, Coleridge-Taylor visited the USA for what was to be the third and final time. The orchestra he was to conduct was handpicked by his host, Carl Stoeckel.

Stoeckel wrote a detailed account of this visit and here is an extract, ‘...I met him at the first rehearsal of the Bamboula Rhapsodic Dance. He leaned over from the conductor’s stand as I came up the aisle and shook hands, mopped his brow, and remarked, “This is a wonderful orchestra. I never directed anything like it. They can read anything beautifully at first sight”. After the rehearsal, the men in the orchestra were quite as complimentary to him. They called him the African Mahler as it is generally conceded by orchestral musicians that the greatest conductor who ever visited this country was the late Gustav Mahler of Vienna.’

The ‘Black Mahler’ nickname, repeated perhaps from a single inaccuracy following this event, became the more commonly used and I believe Coleridge-Taylor would have approved; he was English and wanted to be known as an English composer.

I believe it is time that Coleridge-Taylor was rescued from the dry and dusty drawer of academia and returned to the people.

So the name is actually a mark of deep respect and affection and not a ‘silly marketing gimmick’ that is ‘musically illiterate’ and of a ‘British music ghetto’. Incidentally, there is only one ‘T’ in ‘British’, normally).

Charles Elford (author of Black Mahler: The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story)

Doundou Tchil said...

You have a vested interest in the term "Black Mahler" because that's the name of your book. People buy your book because of the title.

As even you admit that was a "single inaccuracy" which came to be repeated so often it's come into common use. It was fine in 1910 at the height of excitement. It wasn't meant in any deeper sense. But continuing to use it today is misleading. It's high time the term was assigned to oblivion because it does neither Mahler nor Coleridge-Taylor any favours.

You says "it's time C-T was rescued from the dry and dusty D
drawer of academia and returned to the public". No. The more we respect C-T the more we need serious, intelligent and musically-informed scholarship. That is the3 sort of respect he deserves.

I've read your book, and frankly it does C-T no favours. Minor details are strung out endlessly or speculated upon. It reads like a TV script though the real drama in C-T's life is barely touched upon.

Do not make gibes against Jeffrey Green's far better researched book. The "people" whoever they might be, are perfectly capable of reading books like his.

Roger Thomas said...

Charles Elford seems to be the pompous epitome of the pot calling the kettle black. About the only thing he gets right here is the spelling of "British". The blogger doubtless knows how to spell it -- slips of the keyboard happen.

It is plainly evident from the quotation Elford cites that the American orchestra members' reference to Coleridge-Taylor as the "African Mahler" was a reference to his conducting skills/style., not his compositions. Gustav Mahler was known and respected in the USA for his conducting -- conducting other composers' music. Mahler's own compositions were hardly played at all in the USA before his death and on the odd occasions when they were performed they were not well received, But one has to delve into the "dry and dusty drawer of academia" in the shape of Henry Louis de la Grange's masterly biography of Mahler to know things like that. The musicians obviously saw something of Mahler in Coleridge-Taylor's manner on the podium -- use your imagination a bit and there is even a slight physical resemblance between the two men. But Coleridge-Taylor did not write symphonies and his music is not "like" Mahler's, So to take the African/Black Mahler tag oout of its historical context is to do a dis-service to an understanding of Coleridge-Taylor's musical contribution, and as a book title it is grossly misleading.

Elford is scathing about historical research in his imaginative reconstruction (his book) about Coleridge-Taylor. But one does not have to go beyond the first chapter to realise that this is a misleading work of fiction (not just in being cast as a historical novel but also in being fabricated or reliant on now discredited secondary sources) that does nothing to bring Coleridge-Taylor back to the people. Thus it is implied that Coleridge-Taylor's African father practised medicine in Croydon but returned to Sierra Leone because the people of Croydon were too prejudiced to accept a black doctor. But there is zero evidence that Dr Taylor went anywhere near Croydon. He qualified MRCS in November 1874 at King's College; soon after (no time to set up a practice in Croydon), in January or early February 1875, he returned to Sierra Leone. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in August 1875 in Holborn, and so presumably was conceived in November or December 1874. When Dr Taylor left for West Africa is quite possible he was not aware that his English "girlfriend" was pregnant. The Croydon connection came a bit later in Coleridge-Taylor's life.

If bringing Coleridge-Taylor back to the people implies ignoring such facts, give me the "dry and dusty drawer" any time.

Sean Creighton said...

Readers who want to keep up to date with news and information about Coleridge-Taylor can do so via the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network website and be added to the elist to receive its regular newsletters. Recent highlights include the release of a CD of his piano music by Waka Haseqawa. Sean Creighton, Network Co-ordinator.