Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The recent issue of Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast as a children’s cantata carries forward the utility of his work. Every choral society in the British Isles must have sung the work in its original form, and it is also popular in operatic form. Though written while still a student at the Royal College, it was rightly hailed as a stroke of genius. Freshness of idiom joined to piquant orchestration came with a note of surprise in British music; and with such a beginning the prophets said that the field of British music would soon be his alone. But Coleridge-Taylor, in his continuation of the work, failed to reach the heights again: maturity had come as a vision and was gone.

My first glimpse of Coleridge-Taylor was in the streets of Hanley on the occasion of the production during the festival of _The Death of Minnehaha_3. (In my kindness, I was a deputising cellist in _Utopia_4 while my friend had the greater honour of playing in the festival.) A young Negro, bright and alert, passed by, accompanied by a lady whom I knew afterwards to be his wife. Both were strikingly winsome, and with Hiawatha in mind, I pictured them as journeying to the wedding feast. Some years later I was chatting with him at the rehearsal before the performance of his cantata _Meg Blane_5, which some of my friends had arranged. He talked of many things that interested him, and incidentally described his home life as any elysium on earth.

Coleridge-Taylor had a leaning towards Dvorak and Humperdinck, and thought Elgar as a composer was greater than Strauss. No one else could use the brass in the orchestra with the genius of Elgar. Coleridge-Taylor spoke in short, swift sentences, linked to many pleasantries. When he mounted the platform, he was confronted with seventy players of the Hallé orchestra and a chorus of eighty only. At the first entry of the chorus, he stopped suddenly and, addressing the orchestra, said rather dryly ‘Gentlemen, half marks throughout!'. I did not meet him again until the Coronation week of 1911, when a series of Empire concerts was given by the Queen's Hall Orchestra and the LSO at the Crystal Palace.

Coleridge-Taylor was to be there to conduct the South African Concert, and I was very happy when Robert Newman told me that an overture of mine was included in the programme. Then Coleridge-Taylor wrote to me, showing, I think, pleasure that he should conduct a work that Beecham had done only a few months previously at a Birmingham Philharmonic concert6. We met at Cramer’s, where I believe he had a studio: and there at the piano we worked through the score, which he read quite easily. We adjourned for a fortnight and met again at the rehearsal: and now, after all these years, I can speak with unfeigned praise of his work as a conductor, in which a man’s natural generosity and unselfishness has room to move.

At the time of the Coronation Concerts, Coleridge-Taylor had just returned from a visit to the United States, and he was overjoyed at the progress men of his race were making in cultural development. A festival of his works given by Negroes had astonished him, and he spoke with gladness of a Coleridge-Taylor Society founded by them for the cultivation of his music. He was all keen for his next visit to America. The summer of that coronation year was distressingly hot, and I fear that he was greatly debilitated by his strenuous endeavours that all should go well for British music. We met again, and after tea walked slowly through the throng in Oxford Street, where from the top of an omnibus he waved to me what was to be a final Adieu. In a few months he was dead: a man who was in all truth the image of the hero in his masterpiece, Hiawatha. Our interest in his music ebbs and flows, which is well, for like the sea it will never grow stale. In his music we find an individual note that like the man and his speech was refreshingly concise and swift.

  1. Staffordshire Triennial Festival, Autumn 1899 ↩︎

  2. Sullivan’s Utopia Limited ↩︎

  3. Cantata to words by Robert Buchanan, first performed at Sheffield, 1902 ↩︎

  4. Brian’s memory is at fault here; For Valour, which Coleridge-Taylor conducted on 27 June 1911, was not given by Beecham until 14 February of the following year. Perhaps Coleridge-Taylor showed pleasure in conducting a work that Henry Wood had premièred (in 1907) ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, September 1934, p. 1023