The grand red-brick Royal College of Music on Prince Consort Road in London faces the Royal Albert Hall, a large concert hall that witnessed dozens of performances of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Song of Hiawatha in the 1920s and 1930s. The hall had and still has fierce critics--"The design is wrong for anything except gladiatorial combat" was an early comment in The Engineer (Clark 1958, 41). It could hold eight thousand spectators, but it was situated in a residential area, immediately south of Hyde Park, far from other theaters and halls (42, 61). From the moment it opened in 1871, the management struggled to fill its seats. The combination of Coleridge-Taylor's The Song of Hiawatha and the showmanship of Thomas Fairbairn solved that problem in the interwar years.
Fairbairn was a pageant master who mounted Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and scenes from Gounod's Faust at the hall in 1922, combining singers in costume with projection slides. In 1924, responding to a charity's request, he considered presenting a dramatized version of either Mendelssohn's Elijah or Coleridge-Taylor's Song of Hiawatha. He had discussed the general concept with Coleridge-Taylor "many years before" (180). Both works had been presented previously at the hall in standard choral style, so Fairbairn visited the Royal Choral Society to see which one had been financially more successful. The Song of Hiawatha had brought in more people. On that existing success, Fairbairn set to work.
The Royal Albert Hall has a central arena, not a stage, and Fairbairn's backcloth was ten thousand square feet. The members of the chorus had to sing without scores, for they were to be in a Native American costume and always in public view. When first discussing this with the Royal Choral Society, Fairbairn was told that the members could probably sing the Hiawatha choruses "in their sleep already" (Reid 1968, 158). A waterfall--with real water draining into a natural stream beneath the building--was part of the colorful set. "'Hiawatha' was a success from the start," producing the lion's share of the hall's annual profits (Clark 1958, 181).
From 1924 to 1939, with the exception of 1926, The Song of Hiawatha played before thousands for two weeks every summer. From the late 1920s, showman Charles Cochran managed the hall. He recalled in his memoirs that safety standards caused problems for the Albert Hall. His plans to have "arena versions of Oedipus Rex and Carmen" were abandoned because they were classified as stage plays, which brought such productions under the laws enacted to prevent the risk of fire and crowd panic in theaters (from the days of flares and illumination by oil, candles, and gas), "whereas Hiawatha and other elaborate productions, classified as cantatas or operettas, were permitted without restrictions" (Cochran 1941, 201).
Free from such restrictions, Fairbairn's pageant had another important advantage. The hundreds of choristers, who wore feathers and makeup, were members of the Royal Choral Society. Because they were amateurs, they were not paid; the hall and the society made the profits (Clark 1958, 210). In addition, these numerous singers had friends and relatives who went to see them perform The Song of Hiawatha at the hall.
The Royal Choral Society had over eight hundred singing members at this time, but its performances--including Elijah--were generally not well attended. Only Handel's Messiah pulled in crowds (Reid 1968, 155). The society's deficit was reversed by two activities: royalties from phonograph recordings and performance of The Song of Hiawatha. "Every summer it crammed the arena of the Royal Albert Hall with melodious Red Indians and the rest of the immense building with ecstatic audiences" (156). The venture attracted mixed audiences, including the royal family.
Fairbairn recalled that Coleridge-Taylor had warned him that Longfellow's words were in the past tense. The impresario changed them to the present tense, but occasionally the singers reverted to the original (158-159). With fourteen performances in two weeks, it is not surprising that the old, well-known words were sometimes sung.
Professional singers performed the main parts. The instrumentalists were professionals as well. The charismatic Malcolm Sargent directed the music for most of these summer seasons; one of his biographies contains a chapter entitled "The Wigwam Years" (154-168). Sargent's showmanship was only ever upstaged by a Mohawk who played the medicine man. Chief Os-ke-non-ton "wore a yard or two of feather head-dress and was stately and inscrutable. More opera glasses were focussed on him than on any other player" (161).
Two hundred dancers and up to eight hundred singers poured into the arena just as Sargent pressed a pedal that brought the lights on: howling, they threw themselves down before the "tribal leaders and totems, freezing the hall to silence" (162). This spectacular annual event kept Coleridge-Taylor's name and music before thousands. So did the phonograph recording of abbreviated versions of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast and The Death of Minnehaha, issued on eight discs, which sold in the thousands (165). The Song of Hiawatha was still presented at the Albert Hall from 1947, but "the Redskins who combined culture with the pleasure of dressing up have been absent," although the society suggested a full revival in 1949 (Clark 1958, 243).
Coleridge-Taylor's music was still being republished, and his "Demande et Reponse" was being played, with varying degrees of accuracy, by piano students all over Britain. A Tale of Old Japan was performed often enough for the composer's family to take legal action against its publishers in the 1930s (Hurd 1981, 177). The number of published versions of Coleridge-Taylor's works still found in used book shops reflects this continuing interest, as did Augener's decision to republish Sayers' biography in 1927. The souvenir programs of the Albert Hall's performances of The Song of Hiawatha can also be found at ephemera and theatrical fairs.
The programs, substantial souvenirs priced at two shillings, six pence (worth one-eighth of one pound; then equivalent to sixty cents, U.S.), were sold by students from the nearby Royal College of Music. Yvonne Hales (then Yvonne Fisher) (2002) recalled that she and fifteen to twenty of her fellow students had done this. The choristers brought their partners and children along, "all dressed up," and the children were "everywhere," eating their sandwiches "all around the hall" and probably in the nearby park two hours before Hiawatha started. There were so many costumed adults and children that she and her friends had difficulties making their way from Prince Consort Road, up the steps, and through the square into the hall: "It was seething with them."
Sargent conducted; Hales (2002) recalled that the children would "swoop in" with such a rush and in such numbers at the opening that she and her friends quickly learned to stand to one side. There were "very small children" but no babies, probably because their crying would interrupt the music. The event was not so much a concert but "more of a show-business thing." The children did not sing; they and many of their adult companions acted as tribal members, gathered before the leaders. She also recalled the waterfall and that there was smoke from the wigwams. Hales, who had studied composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams, viewed Coleridge-Taylor's music as "very likable--appealing" and easy to learn. She did not remember listening to any of his music other than the theatrical Song of Hiawatha performances at the Royal Albert Hall, which continued, like her studies at the college, until "the war messed it all up."
The Song of Hiawatha and other of Coleridge-Taylor's works were also performed elsewhere (Elkin 1944, 103; Green 1982, 34, 39; Reid 1968, 248, 260), and they were played and discussed on the radio (Reid 1968, 85). The first Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society founded in Britain was incorporated in Plymouth in 1920; by 1926 one of its patrons was Pixley Seme, New York--and Oxford-educated lawyer from South Africa (McGilchrist and Green 1985, 177; Green 1998, 147-151; Rive and Couzens 1993, 13-22). The composer's music was performed by both amateur and professional singers and in schools.
In 1945, David Clifford's school choral society presented Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, an event that he recalled with relish fifty-five years later (Clifford 2000). In 1953, he responded to a London newspaper advertisement seeking choral singers to perform the Hiawatha trilogy, in costume, at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation.
Rehearsals started in March, under the baton of Colin Ratcliffe, director of the United Hospitals Choir. Taking the name the London Coronation Choir, the five hundred singers largely came from among hospital staff, with Ratcliffe's choir numbering some two hundred. There were some doctors, senior nurses, and one registrar, but "the majority were nurses, radiographers, therapists, and students" (Clifford 2000). They rehearsed weekly. Just as the Royal Choral Society's members had done in the 1920s and 1930s, Clifford and the others memorized all the words and music to the complete The Song of Hiawatha.
By June, the singers had three floor rehearsals each week (in the Horticultural Halls, in Westminster) and two dress rehearsals at the Albert Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra (Clifford 2000). The historian of the Albert Hall hinted that there were problems concerning the hall's management, the Royal Choral Society, and copyright (of the music and of Fairbairn's pageant) but observed of Ratcliffe's venture in 1953 that it sold thousands of pounds worth of advance bookings and made a good profit (Clark 1958, 243). Clifford's testimony shows how much unpaid effort had gone into the venture (as it had in the 1920s and 1930s). The fourteen performances started on June 29, 1953. The volunteers were subject to some stringent rules, notably that they could only miss two performances. They sang every evening except Sunday and had a matinee on Saturday afternoons.
Clifford (2000) recalled, "The stage setting was a vast backdrop of snow-capped mountains and lakes, especially painted for our show." The arena, crowded with the five hundred American Indians, had stage rocks, plants, and two wigwams (to one side, so the audience could see). "The principal costumes were hired, but a lot of the braves and squaws wore costumes made by friends and members. We all wore wigs, pig-tails, brown make-up, and war paint. I am sure we would have passed for the genuine article." They made up in the crowded area under the arena floor.
The performances were advertised on the London subway, and leaflets were printed. The composer's daughter attended, as did Countess Mountbatten (her husband's cousin was the new queen's husband, the duke of Edinburgh). The countess was the patron of the College of Nursing and had attended several of Ratcliffe's hospital choir events.
All the principal singers were professionals. "Most if not all of the choristers were amateurs. We came straight from work on performance nights, and, as is normal with amateur choirs, we received no payment towards our expenses" (Clifford 2000). The Song of Hiawatha score was still in print, and Clifford recalled that the singers had to purchase their own copies of the Walsh, Holmes, and Company three-volume set. David Clifford still has his own, as does Marguerite Robertson; they met during rehearsals and married in 1956.
Clifford recalled that the show lasted for two-and-a-half hours, with intermissions of ten to fifteen minutes. There were no set changes, but there was strobe lighting in the second act, to create the effect of snow. The whole production was a "real spectacle" with excellent support from the London Symphony Orchestra. "I think that the tenor solo 'Onaway, awake beloved' is the piece that most folk will remember."
Having given the profits to charity, the choir members tried to repeat their success in 1954, getting as far as the dress rehearsals, when the low bookings led to cancellation (Clifford 2000). This is confirmed by the Royal Albert Hall historian--"Thus 'Hiawatha' came, for the moment at least, to his post-war happy hunting grounds, an event which before the war would have been inconceivable" (Clark 1958, 243-244).
Clifford (2000)still enjoys The Song of Hiawatha, preferring it to Hiawatha's Departure. He thinks that The Death of Minnehaha "has a lot going for it" and considers the Wedding Feast the least interesting.
Clifford and his wife named their house Keewaydin (the North West Wind, from the final lines of Hiawatha's Departure) and recalled that they had a motor cruiser that they named Shingebis (the Diver). Naming houses after characters in The Song of Hiawatha is not uncommon in England; the impact of the music has even been noticed in quotations carved on gravestones. In these and other ways, the music of Coleridge-Taylor survives in England a century after it was created.
In 1975, a century after the composer's birth, one of London's famous circular blue plaques was placed on the wall of 30 Dagnall Park, that "nest of a cottage, with gate and garden, hidden in London's endless ring of suburbs," as Du Bois (1920, 193) had described it. It states that the composer of The Song of Hiawatha had lived there.
That same year, at St. Sepulchre's Church at Holborn Viaduct (a twenty-minute walk from the composer's birthplace), there was a ceremony to mark Coleridge-Taylor's centenary. On the wall is a small statue of an angel, dedicated to Coleridge-Taylor. The service was attended by Mary, daughter of August and Isabella Jaeger (Allen 2000, 288). The Musical Times, which had so often mentioned Coleridge-Taylor, published an article about him in 1975 (Young 1975). The composer's centenary also saw a celebration performance of The Song of Hiawatha at Croydon's modern concert hall.
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