Swan Song

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

In 1901, a group of about 200 black singers in Washington, D.C., formed the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, in honor of the English composer who was for them a standard-bearer of the times. Coleridge-Taylor was a mixed-race musician who had made his mark in the very white world of classical music, and in founding the ensemble, the singers hoped not only to promote his music, but also to persuade him to come to America. This he did in 1904, agreeing to conduct a three-day festival of his works in the nation’s capital. The composer, well versed in the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and deeply interested in black American life, seemed unconcerned by the possibility that he might suffer racial abuse while abroad (something he experienced at home). “As for the prejudice,” he wrote to his American hosts shortly before his arrival,

I am well prepared for it. Surely that which you and many others have lived in for so many years will not quite kill me …

I am a great believer in my race, and I never lose an opportunity of letting my white friends here know it. Please don’t make any arrangements to wrap me in cotton-wool.

As it turned out, neither Coleridge-Taylor nor the chorus bearing his name had very much to worry about.

Washington’s old Convention Hall, a cavernous venue on Mount Vernon Square, was booked for three nights in mid-November. With word spreading and excitement building, a line began to form on a Friday night for the purchase of tickets the following morning. Some 3,000 patrons—about 2,000 of them black—attended the first performance, in which Coleridge-Taylor conducted his trilogy of Hiawatha cantatas. (The first of these, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, happened to be his best-regarded work.) The orchestra was the U.S. Marine Band, augmented by freelance string players, and in addition to the Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, three prominent black American vocal soloists performed—a grand triumph with both the critics and the crowd. Coleridge-Taylor was later invited to the White House, where President Roosevelt held a reception in his honor.

Coleridge-Taylor returned to America twice more in the following six years—successful trips from a musical perspective but important for other reasons, too, for it was here that the composer began to investigate his heritage. His paternal forebears had been slaves, freed from the American colonies and landing eventually in Sierra Leone. This was where Coleridge-Taylor’s father, Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, was born. He emigrated to England to study medicine, and while there, began a relationship with a white Englishwoman named Alice Hare Martin. When Taylor returned to Africa (later attaining an important position in the British Empire’s administration in Gambia), he did not know that Alice Martin was pregnant. In 1875, she gave birth to Samuel, naming him after the Romantic poet.

Though he began his life in the Holborn district of London—what was, in those days, a squalid neighborhood—he and his mother escaped to suburban Croydon. He studied the violin, sang in the chorus of a local church, and was awarded a scholarship in 1890 to the Royal College of Music, where he studied the violin and then composition. Even among so many talented students (Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst among them), Coleridge-Taylor stood out, and upon his graduation, he was ready to embark on a career as a composer.

He had the advantage of securing a publisher early on—the venerable Novello company put out a few of his first pieces and would continue to do so throughout his life. August Jaeger, the noted editor and critic, worked at Novello and brought the young composer to the attention of Edward Elgar, who declared Coleridge-Taylor to be “far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men.” When Elgar had to turn down a commission from the Three Choirs Festival, he suggested in his stead Coleridge-Taylor, who composed his Ballade in A minor for the occasion, conducting the piece to much acclaim.

That same year, 1898, saw the premiere of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, based on Longfellow’s poem, an occasion described by Hubert Parry, the director of the Royal College of Music, as “one of the most remarkable events in modern English history.” That might sound a touch hyperbolic today, but England’s appetite for the work was seemingly insatiable, on a par with Handel’s Messiah: in the six years following its debut, it was heard some 200 times. But though the cantata made Coleridge-Taylor’s reputation, it would be the summit of his all-too-brief career. Nothing else he wrote (including the two Hiawatha sequels) could match its success. And given the pressures of having to support a family—he got married in 1899, and two children followed—he was forced to take on numerous conducting and teaching jobs that limited the time he could spend on composition.

Coleridge-Taylor was deeply interested in both African and African-American melodies. A meeting with the American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1896, for example, had let to a vocal work, African Romances, with the two of them deciding to put on a series of performances together. Another work, the Twenty-Four Negro Melodies for piano, was influenced by Dunbar’s work. “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk music,” Coleridge-Taylor wrote in the preface to the score, “Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro melodies.” But though the composer’s political consciousness had been informed by an abiding interest in pan-Africanism, though his explorations of his paternal ancestry had him briefly flirting with the idea of relocating to the United States, he primarily filtered the raw materials of black American and African music through a distinctly European sensibility, Brahms and Dvořák being his guiding lights. Coleridge-Taylor’s true métier was the realm of light English music, and as interest in that field diminished with the passing of the 20th century, with the decline of the amateur choruses that once would have taken up such repertoire, so too did an interest in his music. This was already true by 1912, the year the composer died from pneumonia, having collapsed at the West Croydon station, while waiting for a train.

During the last year of his life, Coleridge-Taylor received a final commission. It came from the American philanthropist Carl Stoeckel, who asked for a violin concerto for Maud Powell to perform. Initially, Stoeckel urged Coleridge-Taylor to incorporate black American music into the work, and in the first version of the piece, the composer obliged, quoting from the spiritual “Many Thousand Gone” in the second movement. When Powell saw the manuscript, however, she conveyed to Stoeckel her dissatisfaction with the first and third movements, which she found thin and unfinished. As Stoeckel later recalled,

While I was considering what to write about this work to Coleridge-Taylor, I received a letter from him, requesting me to throw it into the fire; and saying that he had written an entirely new and original work, all the melodies being his own, and that it was a hundred times better than the first composition.

Both composer and dedicatee were now pleased, but there were yet more difficulties to overcome. While en route to the United States, the score and orchestral parts were lost at sea, forcing the composer to create a new set, racing against the deadline of the first rehearsal. In the end, all was well, and Powell gave the first performance in Norfolk, Connecticut, on June 4, 1912, and she would play it several times thereafter.

Given the relative spate of excellent recordings in the last decade or so—by violinists Tasmin Little, Lorraine McAslan, and Anthony Marwood—Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto is enjoying a happy renaissance. It is, I think, one of his finest works, both lyrical and eloquent. Its opening theme has the structure of a fanfare, with a triplet figure and a succession of accented notes, but the effect is not really declamatory, certainly not ostentatious. Rather, there is a dreamy, almost languid quality to the theme. The first movement unfolds episodically, with long-breathed narrative sections juxtaposed with playful lines composed of dotted rhythms. Unlike so many concertos of the Romantic age, this one is not a virtuoso vehicle. The violin concertos of Dvořák and Elgar, both of which must have influenced Coleridge-Taylor, pose far greater technical challenges for the soloist. There are some double-stop runs and arpeggio figures to negotiate, but these passages would lie comfortably under the fingers of any competent violinist. The typical concerto cadenza gives a soloist plenty of opportunities to show off, but this one is very much restrained. Far from being an antagonist of the orchestra, the soloist fulfills a narrative, collaborative role. There’s a story to tell here, not a battle to wage.

The slow movement is, without doubt, the highlight of the concerto, evolving from a theme of exquisite simplicity and loveliness. If ever one needed evidence of Coleridge-Taylor’s gifts as a supple sculptor of melodies, this is it, with the violin soaring on the E string over a muted string accompaniment, striving for real emotional heights. At the British premiere, which took place five weeks after Coleridge-Taylor’s death, this enchanting movement was repeated as an encore.

By comparison, the concerto’s finale doesn’t quite work for me. It all seems uncertain and tentative, and the dotted figures don’t really go anywhere thematically. Marked Allegro molto, the movement is a kind of rondo, but the lines are far too static to persuade anyone to dance. The development section, moreover, tends to wander—not that this should completely damn the work. Elgar’s Violin Concerto, written two years before Coleridge-Taylor’s, has a beautifully constructed first movement, a tender slow movement, and a finale that rambles on, reaching its destination only after one too many detours. Nevertheless, Coleridge-Taylor’s concerto redeems itself toward the end with the reintroduction of the main theme of the first movement. This is when things really pick up, and the work’s final pages contain much agitation and angst. Only with the final resolution in the major key does the tension find its welcome release.

Listen to Tasmin Little perform the second movement of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto, with Andrew Davis leading the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra:

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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