One-Hit Wonder; Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha Was as Popular in the 1900s as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Musicals Are Today. but, as the First Release of the Composer's Violin Concerto Reveals, He Never Bettered It
Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT
ONE summer's morning in 1912, a man of 37 left home and walked to West Croydon railway station, where he bought a ticket to Crystal Palace.
Before the train could puff in, he collapsed on the platform. Unaided, he staggered home to St Leonard's Road, where a doctor diagnosed pneumonia and prescribed complete rest.
The patient worked in bed on the manuscript of an overdue violin concerto; he died four days later.
At the funeral, crowds lined the route four deep, for his was more than local celebrity. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was the first black composer to make an impact on English ears. His cantata, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, a setting of Longfellow's sentimental epic, drew mass attendances on both sides of the Atlantic, outperforming every other choral novelty (including Elgar's) by the kind of margin that Andrew Lloyd Webber outperforms Harrison Birtwistle.
The cantata remained popular for well over half a century, seasonally selling out the Royal Albert Hall. I recall a boyhood radio broadcast; I may even have sung a stanza or two at school. Then the great singsong fell out of fashion and nothing remained of the composer's reputation. Among 80-odd opus numbers, two Hiawatha sequels fell flat and the orchestral parts of that deathbed violin concerto went down with the Titanic.
Such is the fickleness of reputation that it is generally wise to let dormant composers lie, but Coleridge-Taylor's is an uneasy rest. Some claim him as a victim of English racism, others of capitalist exploitation. This month, the first recording of his violin concerto - performed by Philippe Graffin with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra and released on Avie Records - allows us to assess this unfortunate artist on musical merit.
His life is well documented in a biography by Geoffrey Self (Scolar Press, 1995). Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn on 15 August, 1875, the illegitimate son of Daniel Taylor, a newlyqualified surgeon from Sierra Leone, and an 18-year-old Englishwoman called Alice, whose surname is uncertain. Taylor soon returned to Africa, possibly before his son's birth, unable to find patients in London prepared to be treated by a black doctor.
Coleridge-Taylor was abused at school, other urchins setting fire to his tightly-curled hair. He sought refuge in music and, showing talent on the violin, was sent by Alice for lessons to the Royal College of Music.
In his second term, he composed two anthems that were published by Novellos. Encouraged by the college founder, George Grove, and by its composition professor, Charles Villiers Stanford, the boy poured forth new scores. He wrote three movements of a symphony for the college orchestra, as well as much chamber music for his classmates.
Casually referred to as a "nigger" by a few musical grandees, his rhythms were criticised (in Musical Times) as "barbaric" but he was generally cosseted and groomed for great things.
On graduation, his Novellos editor, August Jaeger, introduced him to Edward Elgar who, a year short of his Enigma Variations breakthrough, secured the prodigy a commission from the 1898 Three Choirs Festival, for an orchestral Ballade in A minor.
Two months later, in November 1898, Stanford conducted Hiawatha's Wedding Feast at the RCM, sandwiched between Rossini's Barber of Seville overture and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. …