Friday, 13 September 2013

Who really was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor ? Hiawatha BBC

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's complete Song of Hiawatha from this year's Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester is available on BBC iplayer for six more days. I was at the performance, on one of the hottest days of the year, but as ever The Three Choirs Festival people were gracious, and let us take shelter in the cool of the Cathedral, though they themselves may have been melting in their three-piece frock coats. True Christian values!  Please read my review HERE.

Hiawatha is an important piece in music history, and not just British music. Dvorák's Symphony from the New World preceded Hiawatha's Wedding Feast by only five years. Delius had started composing in Florida but hadn't yet made his mark, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, older than Coleridge-Taylor, had yet to work with Ravel. At the age of 23, Coleridge-Taylor was already striking away from Charles Stanford's insular world.  Hiawatha is not so much a throwback to tradition but a rebirth. Stylistically, it's innovative, with angular, repetitive lines that suggest "primitive" music, following Longfellow's syntax which suggests the speech rhythms of an oral tradition. Perhaps Coleridge-Taylor was drawn to African and other alien forms because he never knew his father. But it's even more important that he was among the first to intuit the direction in which European music and culture was heading. Picasso, for example, loved African art, but Coleridge-Taylor was well on the way, years before.

So why has Coleridge-Taylor been neglected?  Far from being appreciated as a man and as a musician, he's been pigeonholed into stereotypes, many of which are totally misleading. If even the BBC doesn't care enough to research the background properly, what hope is there? In the early 20th century, there were reasons why the image of Coleridge-Taylor should be transmuted into silly, sentimental bluff.  The "Black Mahler" tag is musically illiterate: we should be thinking past puff like that.  If we have any respect for the composer at all, or indeed for music, we need to be mature enough to handle genuine scholarship and analysis.

Thus I thoroughly recommend Samuel Coleridge -Taylor: a Musical Life by Jeffrey Green (Pickering & Chatto, 2011, 296pp). This is the kind of proper examination that Coleridge-Taylor deserves. Green is a meticulous researcher.  There's no need for fantasy when there is such a wealth of factual information readily available in many archives. Green's decades of work on Black Britons is unique, and absolutely essential for anyone interested in multi-cultural Britain. But he's also superb on the social context of Victorian  and Edwardian Britain: a lesson for anyone really interested in knowing what life might have been like in crowded terrace houses and large extended families.

But most importantly of all, 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. There's even a record of a black child in an orphanage opposite the composer's childhood home. Never underestimate the value of good research and methodology.

The first books written about Coleridge-Taylor skirted around the truth to fit the expectations of the time. The myth about the composer getting a violin from a Curiosity Shop dealer is easily debunked. Coleridge-Taylor's grandfather was a remarkable character who played the violin himself, and whose relatives were musicians. By the standard of working-class Britain, he was very comfortably off, owning two houses and paying poll tax. He adored his grandson so much that there's no way that the boy would have been deprived. But his daughter was illegitimate. In an unusual arrangement, the child grew up with her natural father, his wife and the other children in the family. So for public consumption, the situation, and the relationship between the composer's parents, had to be discreetly underplayed.  In real life, the composer's father was feckless, but had to be romanticized to fit what white middle class people considered acceptable in blacks. Green tackles difficult issues of racial prejudice in the United States where Coleridge-Taylor was feted but coloured people were excluded. The composer was no fool, he knew what was going on. Even in Hiawatha, we can feel his sympathies for the oppressed. Green is, naturally, especially good on Coleridge-Taylor's relationship with American Black intellectuals.

And as for the idea that The Song of Hiawatha should be revived with audiences dressed up as Red Indians?  That  might have been cute once, but now we know that the "Indians" were ethnically cleansed on an epic scale, such behaviour would be racially offensive. Does the BBC really want that in modern Britain where all classes and colours should mix?  This is the very sort of thing that demeans Coleridge-Taylor's reputation and leaves him open to uninformed criticism. Here we have one of the most fascinating British composers but does anyone care?  I have no connection to Jeffrey Green, It's just that I believe in getting to the truth..

PS Get the recording of Coleridge-Taylor's The Song of Hiawatha with Bryn Terfel, Kenneth Alwyn conducts.

1 comment:

Sean Creighton said...

What an excellent piece. Sean Creighton, Co-ordinator, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network. For people who cannot afford the full Jeff Green biography there is the pamphlet especially written by Jeff and published by me last year. Activities promoting SC-T continue, like the release of Waka Hasegawa's CD on SC-T's piano music. For further details see the Network website.