Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Coleridge-Taylor and the Orchestra

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Coleridge-Taylor and the Orchestra

Article excerpt

If he had not achieved such an overwhelming success with The Song of Hiawatha, it is possible that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's creativity would have taken another path. The most likely one would have been that established in his years as a student at the Royal College of Music, where he made a considerable reputation as a composer of instrumental and orchestral music.

The Longfellow cantata created an almost insatiable demand for more choral works. Coleridge-Taylor's orchestral skills would be exercised in these, but in a secondary role. Nevertheless, even here the orchestra was arguably his prime concern. It was essential to his musical thinking, as can be seen in the tenacity with which he negotiated his minimum orchestral requirements with Andrew Hilyer and the other Washingtonians and thus delayed his first visit to the United States. Inadequate players caused his resignation as conductor of the Croydon Orchestral Society (Sayers 1927, 178-179).

We must remember that Coleridge-Taylor was primarily a violinist--like Edward Elgar and Frederick Delius. And like these contemporaries, he had some keyboard skills, although with all three composers, the violin came more naturally. This affected the way in which they composed. Pianist-composers such as Ravel and Rachmaninoff wrote superbly for the orchestra; a keyboard instrument offers a section through the vertical, harmonic, aspect of a composer's work. But it can be a snare for the unwary if the effect of the sustaining pedal is ignored. A transcription of a work written for the piano would probably be unsatisfactory if this aspect is neglected.

Certainly Charles Villiers Stanford, Coleridge-Taylor's professor at the college, insisted that his students be proficient keyboard players, but in fact, composers with a good "ear" will hear the work in their head and do not need a piano. Coleridge-Taylor had such an "ear." Additionally, his ability as a violinist enabled him to write idiomatically for the strings of the orchestra, from the violin down to the double bass.

After leaving college, Coleridge-Taylor was very much a "hands-on" musician, plunging into the amateur orchestral world of southern England. This practical experience colored his whole approach to orchestral writing. He was aware of the effect of gaps in the orchestral fabric when instrumentalists were absent (or perhaps had not been recruited in the first place). He knew which keys would make for less-than-perfect intonation in the strings; how a nervous oboist might ruin a too-prominent solo; how out-of-tune brass might erupt and cause chaos. Eventually, the inadequacies of his amateur brass and wind players became intolerable. Nevertheless, this amateur orchestral experience--and his own spells in the string section of the college orchestras--left a discernible legacy. This was heard in his orchestration: never less than effective, always solid, it made its points even when scaled down in arrangements (and played only moderately well).

Coleridge-Taylor graduated from amateur to professional orchestras as he and his music traveled. He gained the approbation of the hard-bitten professional instrumentalists. They also welcomed him as a conductor who directed his own works and the music of others. This was an era of variable qualities in British orchestras, encouraged by restricted rehearsal time to the extent that in choral concerts, singers often met at the first performance (Jacobs 1994, 39-40). Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) recalled that in 1902, on a two-month tour with his first opera company, "the orchestra [was] quite the most incompetent I have ever known," and he commented that outside Covent Garden, the Queen's Hall (both in London), and the Halle in Manchester, "the average player was hardly equipped to tackle any music except that of a simple and straightforward kind" (Beecham 1979, 65, 66). Henry Wood, conductor at the Queen's Hall from its early days, employed instrumentalists from France, Germany, and the Netherlands to reduce these problems (Pound 1969, 58). …

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