Requiem: Hiawatha in the 1920s and 1930s

Article excerpt

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). …