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Christmas at Crystal Palace

A Deep Dive Into Handel’s ‘Messiah’

Quick: name a choral piece! Did you say Handel’s ‘Messiah’?

It’s one of the most famous pieces of classical music ever, but how much do you really know about its origins and history? We asked Thomas Allery, organist and harpsichordist, some questions about the original ‘Messiah’ and its influence today. Read on to be enlightened and informed…

‘Messiah’ was originally orchestrated for two trumpets, timpani, two oboes, two violins, viola and basso continuo. Subsequent performances have been much bigger, with orchestras numbering well into the hundreds. Can you say a little about the size and scope of ‘Messiah’? 

‘Messiah’ is one of those pieces of choral/orchestral music which can work successfully with almost any size and combination of instrumental forces, and the performance history of the piece shows the complete range! Even today, performances range in size hugely from large scale performances with large choruses and a corresponding large orchestra (often in large venues), to smaller, more intimate versions. It says something about the piece that it is so successful and appealing to audiences in almost any configuration.

In fact, my own first experience of ‘Messiah’ was at a local ‘come and sing’ performance with organ only – also very successful, but a bit of a work out for one organist! The almost entirely unbroken performance tradition of the work means that it has always been able to expand or contract to suit venues and ensembles, not to mention changing tastes over the centuries…

For instance, in the nineteenth century, amateur choral societies flourished across England, and with that, the tradition of large scale performances grew. At this time, new orchestrations and arrangements grew out of the practical needs for new bigger performance forces, including a new orchestration by Mozart and many arrangements for organ accompaniment. Mid nineteenth-century performances in London, such as those at Crystal Palace, had choirs of several thousand voices and huge orchestras numbering 500!

These days, many performances are of a smaller number of singers and players which can be a little more intimate and with a chamber feel – including with directors playing the continuo themselves.

We think of ‘Messiah’ as an oratorio, but Handel had spent much of his career writing Italian operas until this point. Where does ‘Messiah’ sit amongst the musical genres of its time? 

That’s an interesting question as it gets us into the heart of London’s musical life in the middle of the eighteenth century. Handel made huge success as a composer of Italian opera. He travelled to Italy, the heart of the operatic world, early in his life and then had great success with Italian operas such as ‘Agrippina’ (1709) and ‘Rinaldo’ (1711). London was a great melting pot of styles when Handel settled here permanently in 1712, and yes, Italian opera was very popular at this time (also think about the orchestras in the opera houses – full of players and budding composers from across Europe).

Despite this success, Italian opera had always had its highs and lows in London but it began to have severe difficulties in the 1720s – this was mainly because audiences preferred works in English and with a less ornate style, and there was also difficulty in retaining Italian singers to sing them. Composers have always had to move with the times and write what their audiences wanted to hear, and Handel turned his attention to oratorios. Handel had already written Italian oratorios in Rome, and his first English oratorio was in 1718 (‘Esther’). His other oratorios (now also regularly performed) such as ‘Saul’ and ‘Israel in Egypt’ were written just before ‘Messiah’, and also had librettos by Charles Jennens, so they already had a close and successful working relationship. Jennens proposed his libretto for ‘Messiah’ expressing that he hoped that Handel would write a work as powerful as the text demanded – and he did.

‘Messiah’ was premiered in Dublin, but the London performance was more controversial because it was performed in a secular venue, even though its text is drawn from scriptures. When it was advertised, it was called ‘a sacred oratorio’ rather than ‘Messiah’, so we have a glimpse into a world in which the labelling of a new piece, and signalling its genre was important. The libretto is based on themes rather than plot-driven like an opera. So, in terms of genre, it is definitely an oratorio, but written by the hand of a composer who could lend his hand to so many genres, and we often hear the same unmistakable style as we might hear in the opera house.

The original ‘Messiah’ featured some celebrity soloists (Susannah Cibber, the alto). What is the relationship like between soloists and the chorus throughout the piece? 

The role of the chorus seems to change a little through the piece. The chorus does not interact with the soloists as they might in an opera, but Handel seems to use the chorus to reinforce important lines within the scriptures. We should remember that the choice of solo voice or chorus is in itself a decision and an interpretation of the text. At some moments, such as in ‘Hallelujah’ or ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ they seem to represent the voice of the whole world united in praise and thanks, whilst in the middle section, the chorus could be seen to have the role of the crowd, more like in Bach’s ‘Passions’. The first time the chorus sings in ‘And the Glory of the Lord shall be revealed’ is an incredibly powerful moment: coming from the stormy overture into the promises of the opening tenor movements and then into the light. To me, the lightness, the rhythm, and imitations in this movement represent light coming into the world and illuminating everything. There, the sound of the chorus opens up the soundscape to represent the light. Throughout the piece, the placement of the chorus movements punctuate the piece perfectly, and drive the drama on, all adding to the narrative.

Can you explain why the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus is so catchy, memorable and popular?  

It’s got to be the marriage of the text with music. From the outset, Handel captures the natural rhythm and shape of the most joyful word in our language “Hallelujah”. When you say this word aloud, the rhythm of the text is exactly what Handel notates. When you hear this piece, it is as though you are singing it too – it’s infectious.

The movement has a masterful use of harmonic tension and progression. Here Handel is almost like a film composer, pacing the phrases and progressions so you somehow know where it is going, but in which the listener is taken on a journey. The long progression up from ‘King of Kings’ feels like a huge progression through several keys, each with a particular harmonic colour. However many times you have heard it or performed it, it’s always an amazing movement which takes on a different life each time.

And finally, why do you think ‘Messiah’ is still so popular today?

There are many answers for this question! Where to start? The piece was designed to be accessible, direct in its expression, and powerful for a London audience, and this legacy and connection seems to live on. It’s a work that has not been forgotten.

It’s interesting here to think about the charity tradition surrounding the piece which I think contributes to its popularity even today. The first performance in 1742 (in Dublin) was in support of three charities: for prisoners, for a hospital, and for an infirmary. The compositional circumstances of a piece of music can always be felt somehow, even centuries on. You can feel the devotion, the positivity and the values behind it – in that regard perhaps different to in Handel’s operas which were written as commercial entertainments. Handel had a close relationship with the Foundling Hospital and started the annual performances there in 1750, and which continued after his death with John Stanley, and then eventually developed through the nineteenth century into a history of associating music performances with charitable giving, especially at Christmas. Somehow the balance in terms of themes and music lends itself so well to new audiences too. There is just the right balance between solos and chorus, between keys, between light and dark, between recitative and aria, and so on.

Then there is its association with amateur music making across the years. For any choir, Messiah is a great and satisfying challenge, and one that doesn’t get tired. Many, many people have therefore performed at least extracts from it. How many other major works is that the case with?

Then I guess there is the seasonal element! Messiah is closely associated with Christmas, and choirs are more popular at Christmas time, with lots of people enjoying joining in with carols and hearing music which tells the Christmas story.

Hear LMP perform ‘Messiah 360’, our version of the classic with a twist, on Saturday 17 December 2022 at Fairfield Halls, Croydon. Thomas Allery joins us as the harpsichordist and director for this concert. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Equal Play: Our New Education Ambassadors Scheme to Bring Accessible Music Education to Croydon

Driven by the belief that every young person should have the chance to hear and play live music, we’ve launched a brand-new education programme called Equal Play. Building on our 30-year history of delivering education work in Croydon, we’re is working with a number of Education Ambassadors to help tackle the issue of young people not having ongoing access to arts education. At the forefront of the scheme are LMP Education Ambassadors Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Jess Gillam, Matilda Lloyd and our Young-Artist-in-Residence, Leia Zhu.

The Education Ambassadors will serve as advocates for LMP’s community work to help engage children and young people. The young ambassadors, all aged between 16 and 27, will take part in a variety of education activities including workshops, masterclasses and careers insights days with students and serve as peer inspiration for young people. As part of the wider scheme, we will also offer free and discounted tickets to children and young people for our flagship Fairfield Halls season, access to free musical instruments through our Instrument Amnesty Scheme and side-by-side performance mentoring with LMP musicians.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, cello:

“I’ve long been a big admirer of the LMP and its education work and so it’s a great feeling to join them in a more official role as Education Ambassador. I’m looking forward to working more closely with them, and in the community.”

Matilda Lloyd, trumpet:

“I’m absolutely delighted to be an Education Ambassador for LMP and am very proud to be representing the trumpet and brass instruments! The importance of music and the arts in the lives of young people is often underestimated. From my own personal experience, music allows young people to express themselves creatively, it unifies and creates a sense of community and belonging, it increases confidence levels, it teaches important skills such as collaboration, communication, resilience, and determination, and most importantly, it is great fun.”

Leia Zhu, violin:

“I am extremely honoured to have been appointed Education Ambassador by LMP. Classical music, and the arts as a whole, is facing many challenges at the moment and it is harder than ever for young people to access high-quality music education. And yet, classical music has so much to offer. It can inspire creativity, promote teamwork, and instil a love of learning. I believe that every child deserves the opportunity to experience the joy of making music, and I am committed to working with LMP to make this a reality.”

Jess Gillam, saxophone:

“LMP are so passionate about giving young people access to high quality music education and exposing young people to the wonders of the orchestra.  I care deeply about this too and so I am very excited to join LMP as one of their Education Ambassadors! I am looking forward to working together to reach as many young people as possible through LMP’s Equal Play programme.”

Identified by Arts Council England as the 5th highest for need and the 4th highest for opportunity out of the London boroughs, the borough of Croydon (where we’re is based) is currently lacking in its access to the arts. Moreover, Croydon has also suffered from a significant cut in pupil premium in the 2021-22 academic year: £581,040 for primary schools and £210,940 for secondary schools, meaning a significantly tighter budget to spend on extra-curricular activities. Our scheme will first focus on schools who have the highest percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals, in consultation with Croydon Music and Arts, and then expand to other schools in the borough. Aligned with our mission in the year of Croydon being London’s Borough of Culture for 2023/24, we’re aiming to reach all school children in the borough throughout the year.

Ceri Sunu, LMP’s Business Development Manager, commented on the need for scheme, particularly at this moment in time:

“There are still far too many children and young people who do not have access to ongoing music education. While we’ve been committed to our education work across the community in Croydon for the past 30 years, we recognise that it is now more urgent than ever to continue expanding our work to fight against the significant barriers to arts education. Barriers include the rising cost of living meaning less disposable incomes for families, a decrease in funding for the arts and high education institutions, and a continued hangover from covid which has disrupted learning in schools.”

When the Seasons Change

Welcoming Christine Anderson to our viola section

Christine Anderson grew up in Glasgow, where she studied at both the junior and senior departments of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, before completing her Masters at the Royal College of Music with Simon Rowland Jones. During her studies, she developed a love for chamber music, and was lucky to attend the Mendelssohn on Mull Festival for several years. Christine now enjoys a varied career as an orchestral and chamber musician. In 2016, she joined the viola section of the Hallé orchestra, where she holds a 50% job. She is co-principal viola of the United Strings of Europe, with whom she enjoys taking part in innovative projects that connect different cultures and art forms. She also performs with other ground-breaking chamber collectives, such as the SONO Ensemble, Manchester Collective, and Her Ensemble. She is passionate about the importance of the classical music world being a place where everybody can feel included and represented.

Christine plays on a beautiful English viola, made by David Milward in 2011. We’re thrilled that she’s joining our wonderful viola section as a permanent member.

Libera Nos

Welcoming Leo Popplewell to LMP

We’re very excited to welcome Leo Popplewell to LMP as Cello No2. Leo studied at Clare College, Cambridge, and later at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

He has performed as a soloist and chamber musician in many of the world’s leading concert halls, including Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall and Barbican Hall, and appears regularly at festivals across the UK.

In 2017 he formed the Mithras Piano Trio, taking first prize at the 10th Trondheim International Chamber Music Competition and 67th Royal Over-Seas League Competition. They were selected as BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists for the 2021-23 seasons, and are alumni of the Kirckman Concert Society.

His studies have been generously supported by the Countess of Munster Musical Trust, Help Musicians UK, and the Craxton Memorial Trust.

Our new partnership with Naxos for Education

We’re proud to announce that we are now an Ambassador of Naxos for Education as part of a joint Audience Development Partnership from our 2022–2023 season onwards. Building on the long-standing relationship we have with Naxos over many acclaimed recordings in the past, this initiative demonstrates our shared goal of bringing the finest classical music to the community, both live in a concert hall and through recordings.

Through the recurring Keep Calm and Listen On campaign, we’re spreading the word about free access to Naxos Music Library (NML) via a number of public libraries in London’s boroughs, for any library member. With an unrivalled breadth of classical music recordings from close to 1,000 major and independent labels including all of LMP’s, NML can be streamed on demand and on-the-go via the dedicated app.

Furthermore, students and schools working with our outreach programmes will be given complimentary access to Naxos MusicBox – a beautifully curated online resource for children aged 4-14 for their own exploration and discovery of musical treasures.

Naxos for Education is a brand-new portal for educators and practitioners, students and music lovers alike to access free resources and information about the wealth of Naxos’ offering. At Naxos, we believe in the power of music and words in enriching and deepening our understanding of humanity, art and culture.

Selected Libraries in Greater London with access to NML:
Barbican Music Library
British Library Sound Archive
Richmond and Wandsworth Libraries
Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries
Westminster Libraries
Waltham Forest Libraries

The World of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Jonathan Bloxham announced as Conductor in Residence and Artistic Advisor

JONATHAN BLOXHAM ANNOUNCED AS OUR CONDUCTOR IN RESIDENCE AND ARTISTIC ADVISOR

Today, we have announced Jonathan Bloxham as our Conductor in Residence and Artistic Advisor. Jonathan will be working closely with our artistic team to develop our vision for the years ahead, as well as conducting key LMP concerts including those at Fairfield Halls, where our orchestra is Resident.

Jonathan commented:

“It’s an honour to be joining LMP’s musical family at this exciting time in their long and distinguished history. We’ve already had many exhilarating moments on stage and I’m really looking forward to working more closely with all the orchestra to build vivid and diverse programmes together.”

LMP’s Chief Executive, Flynn Le Brocq, commented:

“It’s wonderful that we’re able to formalise our close relationship with Jonathan, especially during the 2023/24 year when Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture. This is a very exciting time for the orchestra and I am confident that Jonathan’s expertise and vision will help us to unlock our full artistic potential”

Jonathan has a long-standing relationship with LMP, making his debut with the orchestra in November 2019 at Kings Place with a programme of Mozart, Schubert and a new commission. Since then, he has continued to have a vivid presence in our orchestra’s life. Projects have included Beethoven and Mendelssohn symphonies, Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.2 with Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Glazunov with Jess Gillam and Tchaikovsky with our Young-Artist-In-Residence, Leia Zhu.

LMP is directed by Leaders Ruth Rogers and Simon Blendis.

Ruth commented on Jonathan’s ability to ‘understand the soul of a chamber orchestra’ and is eager for Jonathan to help the orchestra ‘tread the tightrope of planning programmes by balancing innovative and imaginative initiatives with the need to keep faithful LMP audiences happy.’ Similarly, Simon is excited by Jonathan’s versatility and looks forward to many ‘electrifying concerts’ in the coming years.

Jonathan’s next appearance with us will be in February 2023 for Building Blochs and Birkenstocks at Fairfield Halls. We will be joined by Sheku Kanneh-Mason performing Bloch’s Schelomo and Jonathan will conduct the orchestra through Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4. Fitting with our commitment to always including an ‘added extra’ to our own promotion concerts, Sheku and Jonathan will engage in a conversational exploration of the music during the concert, shedding new light on the performance

Full details of our season can be found on here.

Watch Jonathan’s announcement video

For more information and to enquire about press tickets, please contact:
Anna Bennett, Senior Marketing and PR Manager |  anna@lmp.org.

NOTES TO EDITORS

Building Blochs and Birkenstocks

7.30pm | Saturday 4 February 2023

Mendelssohn Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Bloch Schelomo (arr. George Morton)

Bloch ‘Prayer’ (from Jewish Life) arr. Christopher Palmer

Mendelssohn Symphony No.4, ‘Italian’

Sheku Kanneh-Mason cello

Jonathan Bloxham conductor

London Mozart Players

Don’t let our name mislead you – we don’t just play in London, and we certainly don’t just play Mozart! As well as our residencies at Fairfield Halls in Croydon, St John the Evangelist in Upper Norwood, and Opus Theatre in Hastings, we’re well known internationally for working with many of the world’s greatest conductors and soloists. We’re proud to have developed a reputation for making and playing adventurous, ambitious and accessible music, and for being at the forefront of embedding arts and culture into the life of local communities across the UK and beyond.

After celebrating our 70th birthday in 2019, we soon found ourselves navigating orchestra life during the pandemic. During that time, we created an award-winning digital concert series which reached millions of people – reaffirming our commitment to our audiences.

We’ll be opening the launch event for Croydon’s Borough of Culture in 2023, as well as continuing to host our own concerts and events throughout the next year.

Jonathan Bloxham

Jonathan Bloxham was recently appointed Resident Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the London Mozart Players, effective from October 2022.

Since taking up conducting in his mid-20’s, Jonathan Bloxham has swiftly made his mark as a conductor of “accomplished technique, innate musicianship, with a natural rapport with orchestras and a deep knowledge and understanding of the symphonic repertoire” (Paavo Järvi).

He was Assistant at the CBSO 2016-18, returning in subscription in 2021, and has since conducted across Europe, notably with the London Mozart Players, London Philharmonic, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, Residentie Orkest, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Belgian National Orchestra, Aalborg Symphony, Munich Symphony, Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, Tapiola Sinfonietta and Basque National orchestras.

Highlights of 22/23 include invitations back to Salzburg, Munich, Residentie Orkest and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and the start of his tenure with the London Mozart Players, including concerts at Fairfield Halls, Croydon (London).

Jonathan has a natural affinity with opera and made his Glyndebourne Festival debut in 2021 (Luisa Miller) and returned to Glyndebourne Touring Opera (Don Pasquale), receiving 5-star reviews. In September 2022 he joined the Luzern Symphony to conduct a production of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle at the Luzerner Theater in association with the Luzern Festival.

He has recorded CDs with the London Symphony Orchestra (2022) and Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie (2021, Strauss and Cesar Franck): “irresistible” – Musicweb International.

Artistic Director of the Northern Chords Festival, he has commissioned young composers such as Vlad Maistorovici, Jack Sheen and Freya Waley Cohen. Jonathan studied conducting with Sian Edwards, Michael Seal, Nicolas Pasquet and Paavo Järvi, after having learnt the cello at the Menuhin School and at Guildhall.  A former cellist, he made his concerto debut at the Berlin Philharmonie in 2012.

http://www.jonathanbloxham.com/

https://www.intermusica.co.uk/artist/Jonathan-Bloxham/

Best of British

The Great Exhibition

On the passing of Her Majesty the Queen

The London Mozart Players would like to express their sincere condolences for the loss of Her Majesty the Queen. Our thoughts are with all members of the Royal Family and particularly with our wonderful Patron HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex.

The Significance of Hiawatha

It is hard to consider Coleridge-Taylor’s masterwork The Song of Hiawatha, the first part of which LMP will be performing in October, without reference to the spectacular performances that were for many years an annual London ritual. Such performances, with their clear overtones of cultural appropriation and the doctrine of the “noble savage”, would be regarded as wildly inappropriate now. But were they what Coleridge-Taylor himself had intended? How did he see the character of Hiawatha? And how should we view his work today?

Initially produced in 1924, (12 years after Coleridge-Taylor’s death), by the impresario T.C. Fairbairn and the Royal Choral Society, Hiawatha was staged in the vast setting of the Royal Albert Hall with scenery, backdrops and costumes. The composer’s daughter Avril took part on at least one occasion, singing the part of Minnehaha, while her brother (also named Hiawatha) conducted the ballet sections of the performance. In that first year six performances were given, and these proved so successful that the event was repeated every year after until 1939 (the only exception being 1926). From 1925 onwards, the role of the Medicine Man in the third part (Hiawatha’s Departure) was played by a Mohawk Chief.

Where it all began

Though Fairbairn’s productions began in the 1920s, the story of Hiawatha goes back much further to Longfellow’s original poem The Song of Hiawatha which was published in 1855.

Longfellow drew on material collected by American geographer, geologist, and ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft, who, though a pioneer as an ethnologist, was severely inaccurate by modern standards; among his errors seems to have been a conflation of two historical characters from different Native American tribes – the Iroquois chief Hiawatha and an Ojibwe folk hero named Manabozho (Schoolcraft’s wife was of Ojibwe descent). Longfellow went further, making his titular hero the centre of stories that had originally been about other characters, and inventing new stories entirely; the whole of the relationship between Hiawatha and Minnehaha (on which the Wedding Feast is based) is Longfellow’s own, and totally untrue to known Native American familial practice. In addition, in place of the resourcefulness that characterises the original characters, Longfellow’s Hiawatha becomes an elegiac, renunciatory figure, the archetypal noble savage, who willingly yields his primacy among his people to the incoming “pale-faces” and their religion. This was far from an arbitrary decision by the poet: Longfellow had a vision of creating an epic that would link his people – white Americans – to the land they were now claiming as their own, and therefore needed to portray Native Americans as a relic of the past, a dying culture into whose place white settlers could rightfully move. Having given his blessing to colonialism Hiawatha thus departs into the sunset, into legend and the past – where white America would perhaps have preferred its aboriginal forerunners to have remained.

If one were seeking to write a Hiawatha epic now, it would not be acceptable to do what Longfellow did. Nevertheless, by the standards of the time it was a relatively sympathetic approach – some critics felt he had been too lenient in his treatment of Native Americans. And though it was not the first attempt by a white poet to use Native American folklore as a basis, it was far and away the most successful. As a result, it achieved two things. It brought an awareness of Native American culture to a wider audience than had experienced it before (and, paradoxically, stimulated some Native American groups to claim their cultural heritage more strongly and vocally). And it presented such culture to that wider audience as capable of epic treatment.

Samuel and Hiawatha

Longfellow’s Hiawatha, to some extent a lonely outsider among his people, is also a leader of a culture that is about to undergo seismic shock as it encounters Christian Europeans. Coleridge-Taylor was the son of a Sierra Leonean, a black man growing up in London and a musician striving to be true to his roots and yet succeed on a Eurocentric stage. He could be reasonably assured of a fair hearing in musical circles; he could also expect to be catcalled in the street. He may well have identified with the ambivalence that Hiawatha embodied.

It is noteworthy that when in 1899 Coleridge-Taylor wrote an Overture to the Hiawatha cycle, the main theme is drawn not from any Native American source but from an American negro spiritual, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. He had learned the melody from the performances of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who under their charismatic leader John Frederick Loudin had travelled the globe performing Black American choral music. The struggles of Native and Black Americans alike for integrity and dignity were thus treated as similar, by a black Englishman half a world away struggling for the same.

Samuel and America

The phenomenal success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in 1898 did not only establish Coleridge-Taylor as a major force in English musical life. Its effect in America was perhaps even more profound. Post-Reconstruction, Black Americans were faced both with pushback against the freedoms so hard and bitterly won, and the question of how the race should comport itself in the new world it inhabited. Opinion was divided between those who felt that Black Americans should proceed with great caution and modesty (epitomised in Booker T. Washington’s adage “cast down your bucket where you are”) and those who felt that greater progress was possible but would need to be justified by achievement. The great Black intellectual W.E.B Dubois opined memorably that “the Negro Race is going to be saved by its exceptional men” in his book The Souls of Black Folk – a book Samuel read.

Coleridge-Taylor, with Hiawatha, catapulted himself into the ranks of those exceptional men: an artist of African descent succeeding on equal terms in the heart of what was deemed then to be the greatest empire existing. Demand for him to visit America was almost immediate, and persistent. The first performance of Hiawatha took place in Boston in 1900. Other places soon followed suit. An all-Black choral society bearing Coleridge-Taylor’s name was founded in 1901 in Washington D.C, through the efforts of Mamie Hilyer, who with her husband had visited Samuel in London. She was instrumental in persuading in 1904 to travel to the United States to conduct the Hiawatha trilogy. Samuel was insistent that he would only come if the work were performed with orchestra; but there was no all-black orchestra then in existence of the requisite quality. Eventually the Marines Band, which was nominally free from colour prejudice, was engaged, and Samuel became the first Black musician to conduct white American players – another epochal achievement. One of his soloists was Harry Burleigh, the Black singer who had worked with Dvořák. During his visit he also conducted some Choral Ballads, specially written for the purpose. Their texts were drawn from a small volume called Poems on Slavery, written in 1842 and published in defiance of backlash. The poet was, again, Longfellow. At the end of Coleridge-Taylor’s visit the Washington choir presented him with a silver cup, engraved with Longfellow’s words from the conclusion of Hiawatha’s Departure:

It is well, for us, O brother

That you come so far to see us.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was to visit the United States twice more. He spent the rest of his short life increasingly committed to proclaiming his African heritage through the Western European music he wrote. In this he was a role model for Black American composers such as William Grant Still and Florence Price. But he would not have had so profound an impact had he not written in the first place a work that enraptured audiences wherever it was heard.

©2022 Martin Smith

The Significance of Hiawatha

It is hard to consider Coleridge-Taylor’s masterwork The Song of Hiawatha, the first part of which LMP will be performing in October, without reference to the spectacular performances that were for many years an annual London ritual. Such performances, with their clear overtones of cultural appropriation and the doctrine of the “noble savage”, would be regarded as wildly inappropriate now. But were they what Coleridge-Taylor himself had intended? How did he see the character of Hiawatha? And how should we view his work today?

Initially produced in 1924, (12 years after Coleridge-Taylor’s death), by the impresario T.C. Fairbairn and the Royal Choral Society, Hiawatha was staged in the vast setting of the Royal Albert Hall with scenery, backdrops and costumes. The composer’s daughter Avril took part on at least one occasion, singing the part of Minnehaha, while her brother (also named Hiawatha) conducted the ballet sections of the performance. In that first year six performances were given, and these proved so successful that the event was repeated every year after until 1939 (the only exception being 1926). From 1925 onwards, the role of the Medicine Man in the third part (Hiawatha’s Departure) was played by a Mohawk Chief.

Where it all began

Though Fairbairn’s productions began in the 1920s, the story of Hiawatha goes back much further to Longfellow’s original poem The Song of Hiawatha which was published in 1855.

Longfellow drew on material collected by American geographer, geologist, and ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft, who, though a pioneer as an ethnologist, was severely inaccurate by modern standards; among his errors seems to have been a conflation of two historical characters from different Native American tribes – the Iroquois chief Hiawatha and an Ojibwe folk hero named Manabozho (Schoolcraft’s wife was of Ojibwe descent). Longfellow went further, making his titular hero the centre of stories that had originally been about other characters, and inventing new stories entirely; the whole of the relationship between Hiawatha and Minnehaha (on which the Wedding Feast is based) is Longfellow’s own, and totally untrue to known Native American familial practice. In addition, in place of the resourcefulness that characterises the original characters, Longfellow’s Hiawatha becomes an elegiac, renunciatory figure, the archetypal noble savage, who willingly yields his primacy among his people to the incoming “pale-faces” and their religion. This was far from an arbitrary decision by the poet: Longfellow had a vision of creating an epic that would link his people – white Americans – to the land they were now claiming as their own, and therefore needed to portray Native Americans as a relic of the past, a dying culture into whose place white settlers could rightfully move. Having given his blessing to colonialism Hiawatha thus departs into the sunset, into legend and the past – where white America would perhaps have preferred its aboriginal forerunners to have remained.

If one were seeking to write a Hiawatha epic now, it would not be acceptable to do what Longfellow did. Nevertheless, by the standards of the time it was a relatively sympathetic approach – some critics felt he had been too lenient in his treatment of Native Americans. And though it was not the first attempt by a white poet to use Native American folklore as a basis, it was far and away the most successful. As a result, it achieved two things. It brought an awareness of Native American culture to a wider audience than had experienced it before (and, paradoxically, stimulated some Native American groups to claim their cultural heritage more strongly and vocally). And it presented such culture to that wider audience as capable of epic treatment.

Samuel and Hiawatha

Longfellow’s Hiawatha, to some extent a lonely outsider among his people, is also a leader of a culture that is about to undergo seismic shock as it encounters Christian Europeans. Coleridge-Taylor was the son of a Sierra Leonean, a black man growing up in London and a musician striving to be true to his roots and yet succeed on a Eurocentric stage. He could be reasonably assured of a fair hearing in musical circles; he could also expect to be catcalled in the street. He may well have identified with the ambivalence that Hiawatha embodied.

It is noteworthy that when in 1899 Coleridge-Taylor wrote an Overture to the Hiawatha cycle, the main theme is drawn not from any Native American source but from an American negro spiritual, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. He had learned the melody from the performances of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who under their charismatic leader John Frederick Loudin had travelled the globe performing Black American choral music. The struggles of Native and Black Americans alike for integrity and dignity were thus treated as similar, by a black Englishman half a world away struggling for the same.

Samuel and America

The phenomenal success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in 1898 did not only establish Coleridge-Taylor as a major force in English musical life. Its effect in America was perhaps even more profound. Post-Reconstruction, Black Americans were faced both with pushback against the freedoms so hard and bitterly won, and the question of how the race should comport itself in the new world it inhabited. Opinion was divided between those who felt that Black Americans should proceed with great caution and modesty (epitomised in Booker T. Washington’s adage “cast down your bucket where you are”) and those who felt that greater progress was possible but would need to be justified by achievement. The great Black intellectual W.E.B Dubois opined memorably that “the Negro Race is going to be saved by its exceptional men” in his book The Souls of Black Folk – a book Samuel read.

Coleridge-Taylor, with Hiawatha, catapulted himself into the ranks of those exceptional men: an artist of African descent succeeding on equal terms in the heart of what was deemed then to be the greatest empire existing. Demand for him to visit America was almost immediate, and persistent. The first performance of Hiawatha took place in Boston in 1900. Other places soon followed suit. An all-Black choral society bearing Coleridge-Taylor’s name was founded in 1901 in Washington D.C, through the efforts of Mamie Hilyer, who with her husband had visited Samuel in London. She was instrumental in persuading in 1904 to travel to the United States to conduct the Hiawatha trilogy. Samuel was insistent that he would only come if the work were performed with orchestra; but there was no all-black orchestra then in existence of the requisite quality. Eventually the Marines Band, which was nominally free from colour prejudice, was engaged, and Samuel became the first Black musician to conduct white American players – another epochal achievement. One of his soloists was Harry Burleigh, the Black singer who had worked with Dvořák. During his visit he also conducted some Choral Ballads, specially written for the purpose. Their texts were drawn from a small volume called Poems on Slavery, written in 1842 and published in defiance of backlash. The poet was, again, Longfellow. At the end of Coleridge-Taylor’s visit the Washington choir presented him with a silver cup, engraved with Longfellow’s words from the conclusion of Hiawatha’s Departure:

It is well, for us, O brother

That you come so far to see us.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was to visit the United States twice more. He spent the rest of his short life increasingly committed to proclaiming his African heritage through the Western European music he wrote. In this he was a role model for Black American composers such as William Grant Still and Florence Price. But he would not have had so profound an impact had he not written in the first place a work that enraptured audiences wherever it was heard.

©2022 Martin Smith

The World of Samuel Coleridge Taylor

Mozart at St Martin-in-the-Fields

Jess Gillam at Chichester Cathedral