Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

A Pan-African Composer? Coleridge-Taylor and Africa

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

A Pan-African Composer? Coleridge-Taylor and Africa

Article excerpt

From early published compositions (the seven African Romances, op. 17, for voice), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor consciously projected himself as a composer of lively African sensibilities. His later scores reflect more somber musical influences from the African diaspora. The composer also made one specific attempt to incorporate West African thematic materials into his work, offering a tantalizing glimpse of a path he might have taken had he not died so young. He never visited Africa or met his father, but he had firm contacts with the tight-knit social circle of West African professionals to which his father belonged. At least twenty-four West Africans attended the composer's funeral in 1912, and a wreath in the shape of the continent, highlighting Sierra Leone, was laid at his grave (Fryer 1984, 261). African aspects of both his music and his family background are relevant to proper assessment of the composer and his work.

Coleridge-Taylor came to prominence at the high point of Victorian political and popular engagement with Africa. The commander-in-chief of the British-led forces in Egypt, Sir Herbert Kitchener, defeated the Mahdists at Omdurman on September 2, 1898. Tory prime minister Lord Salisbury's main intent in venturing into the Sudan was to counter French threats to control continental river and rail connections. On September 19, Kitchener confronted a small advance party of French troops led by Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand at Fashoda, farther south on the Nile. It was not until early November that the French government, unwilling to inflame the army or right-wing opinion in the depths of the Dreyfus crisis, ordered Marchand to withdraw (Lewis 1988, 200-205, 227; Wesseling 1996, 247-257). One historian of Victorian Britain wrote: "In the history of public opinion, ... the battle of Omdurman and the enforced retreat of the French at Fashoda represented the high water mark of British Imperialism.... Most of the press, ... politicians and ... public opinion, learned and unlearned alike, reacted with an enthusiasm so jubilant and widespread that it is impossible to deny that this was indeed a new Imperialism" (Seaman 1973, 394).

On November 11, 1898, seven days after the French retreat, Charles Villiers Stanford stepped forward to conduct the premiere of the young black composer's new cantata, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, in a concert at the Royal College of Music, to great acclaim. The success of the music, like that of the original poem from the moment it appeared in the 1850s, was instant. Coleridge-Taylor's African ancestry and Longfellow's epic of alien worlds and culture clash clearly struck a chord at this especially intense moment of late Victorian "enthusiasm so jubilant" for the empire.

Another English composer was to achieve prominence at this highwater mark of the New Imperialism. Edward Elgar's metropolitan breakthrough came in the summer of 1899, with the Enigma Variations. Africa briefly linked and then forever divided the careers of the two men. They approached the New Imperialism from opposite sides of the fence--Coleridge-Taylor, the collegial champion of indigenous peoples; Elgar, the self-doubting praise singer of imperial adventure.

The older composer's attention was first drawn to Coleridge-Taylor by Novello's music reader August Jaeger. This led Elgar, too busy to fulfill a commission from the Three Choirs Festival, to suggest Coleridge-Taylor as a replacement. The resulting work was the ten-minute orchestral Ballade in A minor, op. 33, of 1898. (1) Elgar characterized Coleridge-Taylor as the best of young men and told Jaeger that he had enjoyed meeting the young composer: "[I]t was a real refreshment to me to see C. T. and know him" at the ballade's rehearsals in London in early September (Young 1965, 22-23; Moore 1987, 89). The enthusiasm was short lived. Sixteen months later, Elgar was confiding to Jaeger that Coleridge-Taylor's overture to The Song of Hiawatha was "rot" (Young 1965, 74; Moore 1987, 157). …

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