Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Did you know that 2012 has seen celebrations of the centenary of the death of Britain’s first (and probably still most famous) black “classical” composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor? On Saturday I attended a gala concert of his music in Norwood, including the Ballade in A minor, Violin concerto in G minor, and Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, and on 30 December a plaque will be unveiled on the house in Croydon at which he died. There is now a “Network” for sharing information and events related to this neglected genius: the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network.

I consider Hiawatha to be one of the greatest choral works ever written. It’s up there with Messiah, Elijah etc. The first part, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (the most commonly performed of his pieces), though built of seemingly simple, repetitive musical elements, somehow builds tremendous impact and emotion. The second part, The Death of Minniehaha, however, is the best part, heart-rendingly tragic. In the third part (they were all written as separate works), Hiawatha’s Departure, the level of inspiration falls slightly and there is a bit of musical treading of water (though not as bad as you find in parts of Elgar’s King Olaf (also a setting of Longfellow) or The Apostles). However, in the last few pages, the actual “departure”, it recovers, S C-T giving us one of the most refulgently “Edwardian” purple sunsets in the musical literature.

There are clearly many undiscovered gems from the pen of this composer yet to be given a modern airing. As an encore on Saturday, the excellent Croydon Opera with Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra gave the first modern performance of one of the Choral Ballads. This had been reorchestrated by Stephen Anthony Brown (whose main role in the concert was singing the tenor solo in Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast most beautifully) from the piano score, the full score having been lost in Word War II. It was another revelation of English romantic music. Brown was well-qualified to do this orchestrating work, having copied out all the parts from S C-T’s full score of his opera  Thelma for as performance by Surrey Opera earlier this year. I have long been acquainted with his capabilities as a tenor, as he gave the first performance of my Joyce song-cycle  Chamber Music back in 2001.

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