Raiding the work of the gifted ‘Hiawatha’ man

Dante Quartet
Dante Quartet

SAMUEL Coleridge-Taylor’s name was on everyone’s lips 100 years ago, had been for 14 years prior to his death in 1912 and remained there for a good while after, but today it is virtually forgotten.

The ‘Hiawatha’ man, or words to that effect, chorus a dwindling number of voices recalling The Song of Hiawatha which once eclipsed Messiah in popularity in the days when choral music was more the rage than it is today – the first part of the work, especially.

Hiawatha was far from being Coleridge-Taylor’s only opus number in his short life of 37 years.

He has a further 80-plus to his name and a piano quintet by him, designated Op 1, is performed at Firth Hall on Tuesday at a Dante Quartet concert with pianist Alissa Firsova as part of a Sheffield University contribution to the Black History Icons series of events.

Deep River, the tenth of Coleridge-Taylor’s 24 Negro Melodies Op 59 for piano, also gets an outing with Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, Dvorák’s ‘American’ Quartet and Stravinsky Three Pieces for string quartet making up the programme.

Penned five years before the first part of A Song of Hiawatha, the one-time ubiquitous Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the piano quintet wasn’t published in Coleridge-Taylor’s lifetime – a number of his works were not, despite having opus numbers.

It was discovered, along with other significant pieces, in the library of the Royal College of Music as late as 1999 and since then, a large scale opera known to have been written (1907-09) but thought lost, has surfaced in the British Library with many parts of the manuscript already in typeset form.

It can only be assumed that he didn’t always find the time to think about publishing his music, so busy was he writing it, undertaking numerous conducting assignments and teaching jobs – excessive overwork is said to have contributed to his death from pneumonia.

Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875 to an English mother and a Sierra Leonean father, a doctor who returned to Africa before he was born because his race was a barrier to employment.

He studied composition at the RCM under Stanford and in 1896, Elgar, impressed by what he heard, recommended him to the Three Choirs Festival. Elgar’s publisher called him “a genius!”

He was a mellifluously melodic, prodigiously gifted composer!

After Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in 1898 he was consistently in demand in London and America where he made three tours and was extremely popular among African Americans.

So high was the esteem he was he held in, when he died his penniless widow (a fellow student at the RCM) was granted a pension of £100 by George V – worth considerably more then than it is today!

Few royalties came from his music as, like that of other composes, most of it was sold to publishers for a one-off payment.

Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, sold for 15 guineas (£15.75p in new money), alone would have netted an absolute fortune in royalties and Coleridge-Taylor’s death was a major factor in the institution of a royalties system for composers in the UK.

Proud of his African descent, his music from the outset incorporated Afro elements from three continents and he said his intention in the 24 Negro Melodies was to do for Negro melodies what Dvorák did for Bohemian folk music and Brahms did for the Hungarian variety.

Coleridge-Taylor said Dvorák was his favourite composer and his influence, and Schubert’s, are in evidence in his piano quintet, a work described as “astonishing” by one critic at its premiere in 1893.

That same year, the Czech composer wrote his well-known ‘American’ Quartet, its presence in the concert obviously owing everything to its famous slow movement, which may or may not have been based on a Negro spiritual or American Indian theme – Dvorák was non-committal!

Beethoven’s best-known violin sonata is there because it was originally written for and dedicated to the black violinist George Bridgetower, while the Stravinsky work gets in on the strength of its second movement being prompted by “the famous black music hall comedian Little Tich.” Whoops! He wasn’t black but did ‘black up’ in his early days.