Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Posthumous Christmas : Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Christmas Overture is "posthumous", in the sense that the present form in which it's known was made thirteen years after the composer’s death by a popular arranger, Sydney Barnes.  Colerdge-Taylor's original music was more extensive, being incidental music for a children's play, The Forest of Wild Thyme, in 1910.  There must be dozens of Christmas compilations but this is robust and rather jolly. One wonders what remains of the original manuscript. There's a good recording by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth.

While still a student at the Royal College of Music, Coleridge-Taylor came to the attention of August Jaeger and Edward Elgar who arranged a commission for him at the 1897 Three Choirs Festival.    Hiawatha's Wedding Feast followed soon after, then the full Song of Hiawatha. By the age of 25, Coleridge-Taylor was a resounding success.   Hiawatha was a hit because it suited the taste of the time for grand excess, but it's actually a more more sophisticated work than its reputation might suggest.  Even in Hiawatha, Coleridge-Taylor experiments with non-western form, following Longfellow's attempts to recreate Native American chant and the use of exotc speech rhythm. 

Although he never knew his father and was brought up in an entirely English  environment, being half Black might have shaped his sense of identity, though his interest in the possibilities of "new world" music might also have been sparked by Dvořák and German and French composers of the era. Imagine if he had lived to know Ravel or Starvinsky, or to experience the Jazz Age and the innovations of the 1920's!  Understanding Coleridge-Taylor means understanding the social context in which he was operating, and very specifically the black and non-western culture  of his time.  

Thus I cannot recommend highly enough the book 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, with an encylopedic knowledge of Black society in Britain in Coleridge-Taylor's time.  Green's research is meticulous, drawing on sources rarely explored, and is presented with intelligent analysis. It's 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. Indeed, anyone interested in modern Britain needs to know Green's work.  

The first books on Coleridge-Taylor were written in the early years of the 20th century, before most could even conceive the subtleties of race and class politics. Thus the early books were a sanitized mix of myth and wishful thinking.  The tag "The Black Mahler" for example which has nothing to do with Coleridge-Taylor as a man and his music. It was coined in reference to Coleridge-Taylor’s celebrity when he arrived  in the United States, the reference being to the celebrity as a conductor accorded to Mahler when he visited America in the same period.  Nowadays anything with the word "Mahler" in it sells, so the temptation is to exploit the term for money value even though it's highly misleading.

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