Mendelssohn and his Birkenstocks

(Other shoe brands are available)

In his early twenties, Felix Mendelssohn did what most of us dream of doing and packed his bags, donned his Birkenstocks, waved goodbye to his home country Germany and set off on a grand tour of Italy. He spent nine months as a proper tourist: seeing the sights, speaking the language very badly and getting scammed by his taxi driver.

For anyone else, such an experience would be complete. But the former child prodigy Mendelssohn strove valiantly to make his holiday into a research trip. Five months into his stay, he wrote to his sister:

I now try to reflect whether I have made the best use of my time, and on every side I perceive a deficiency. If I could only compose one of my two symphonies! I must and will reserve the Italian one till I have seen Naples, which must play a part in it.

Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony, known as the ‘Italian’, was completed two years later. Each of its four movements corresponds to a different city he saw on his trip. For those of us unable to embark on our own continental tours, listening to Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony is the next best thing.

 

Venice to meet you

(First movement, Allegro vivace)

Mendelssohn’s first stop was Venice. His first impressions were ‘the whole country had a gay festive air, as if a Prince were expected to make his grand entry’. Prince or no prince, the people welcomed Mendelssohn anyway and his letters brim with delight at finally being in Italy.

Venice was always busy. When Mendelssohn went to the Piazza of St Mark, he observed that ‘in the twilight there is always an immense crowd and crush of people’. There was plenty to see and do as well: ‘I hurry from one enjoyment to another hour by hour,’ he wrote.

The lively opening movement recalls the busy streets that greeted Mendelssohn on his arrival, as well as the energy he expounded in his indefatigable visiting of local galleries, palaces, gardens and churches.

 

There’s no place like Rome

(Second movement, Andante con moto)

Mendelssohn’s stay in Rome coincided with the death of Pius VIII, who has the dubious honour of being the shortest-ruling pope of the nineteenth century. The people of Rome took the news rather lightly, telling themselves: “We shall soon get a new one”.

Mendelssohn went to St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican where the Pope lay in state. He wrote:

Those who place themselves among the singers (as I do) and watch them, are forcibly impressed by the scene: for they all stand round a colossal book from which they sing, and this book is in turn lit up by a colossal torch that burns before it; while the choir are eagerly pressing forward in their vestments, in order to see and to sing properly.

The ‘simple and monotonous’ music he heard here no doubt influenced the slow and restrained second movement.

 

Going with the Flo(rence)

(Third movement, Con moto moderato)

Florence syndrome is a slightly dubious condition where people faint upon seeing sights of great beauty. In Florence, Mendelssohn frequented the Uffizi Gallery, a prime spot for aesthetically charged swooning. His own health remained intact, but he did report ‘feelings of reverence’ when sitting at his favourite spot.

Mendelssohn encountered many who had low opinions of Titian and Mozart. He found these impertinent, writing: ‘I am at all events determined to say the most harsh and cutting things to those who show no reverence towards their masters’. His own work was openly indebted to the Classical tradition that came before him.

The third movement of the ‘Italian’ Symphony is set as a stately minuet and trio in the style of Mozart. It pays homage to his musical predecessors, Renaissance painters and their shared elegant style.

 

See Naples and die

(Fourth movement, Saltarello. Presto)

The final stretch of Mendelssohn’s Italian journey saw him leaving Rome for the south. He applied his usual shrewdness to the new sights there, writing:

Yesterday we went to Pompeii. It looks as if it had been burnt down.

But it was in the local traditions of the more rural south that Mendelssohn found his inspiration for the finale of his ‘Italian’ Symphony. He wrote ‘lively Naples is indeed a pleasant contrast’ to ashy Pompeii and he spent many evenings there dancing the night away with village girls, with the sweet sounds of the accordion for accompaniment.

The final movement of Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony is based on the saltarello, an Italian folk dance popular in the south. Its relentlessly high tempo barrels towards an exuberant finish, concluding Mendelssohn’s colourful nine months in Italy.

 

LMP play Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, ‘Italian’ at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, on Saturday 4 February 2023. Tickets can be purchased here.

 

by Jessica Peng

The Secret History of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

1. A tale of two procrastinators

You may know the story about Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787). He procrastinated the overture and ended up staying up late the night before, kept awake by his wife pouring him drinks. The ink was still wet when the musicians received the scores the next day. However, such was his genius that the audience had nothing but praise: ‘Everybody, on the stage and in the orchestra, strained every nerve to thank Mozart by rewarding him with a good performance’.

Sadly, when Beethoven procrastinated on his Violin Concerto (1806), the result was not so well received. The soloist, Franz Clement, had to sight-read passages and possibly gave up with the piece altogether, choosing instead to improvise. People left the concert feeling confused at best, ‘exhausted’ at worst.

 

2. All press is good press?

One reviewer of the Violin Concerto asks that Beethoven stop writing music consisting of ‘unconnected and piled-up ideas’. Instead, he should ‘give us works like his first Symphonies in C and D […] which will assure him of a permanent place among the foremost composers’.

It’s easy now to laugh at this unenlightened journalist. The earliest symphonies are wonderful, but they don’t occupy our public imagination the way Beethoven’s Third, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies do. But at the time, the view that Beethoven’s music was too long, strange and complicated was not uncommon. The Violin Concerto, which was very long and very difficult, alienated the same people who had objected to the Third Symphony ‘Eroica’ – and there were plenty.

 

3. The Wilderness Years

The Violin Concerto didn’t sink into utter obscurity, but it was rarely performed in the four decades following its lukewarm debut. When it was performed, reviewers usually talked about how talented the soloist was to pull off such an attempt, rather than praising the concerto itself.

Positive, even glowing reviews did come along, but they were rare. For example, in 1828, the year after Beethoven’s death, the Violin Concerto was performed in Paris. One deeply moved reviewer called the concerto ‘one of the most beautiful musical conceptions one can imagine’. Another wrote slightly grudgingly: ‘the piece, we must say, was full of charm and grace’.

 

4. Vindication!

Beethoven avoided visiting London all his life. However, it was there that the Violin Concerto finally got its due. In 1844, a twelve-year-old Joseph Joachim played the violin as Mendelssohn conducted this concerto in Hanover Square. It was a genuinely monumental performance. It made both Joachim and the Violin Concerto famous, and Joachim would regularly play the piece for the rest of his career.

Other violinists such as Henri Vieuxtemps, Carl Flesch and Eugène Ysaÿe had their own distinctive interpretations of the Violin Concerto. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Concerto’s musical standing was indisputable. It’s worth noting that it was ultimately made famous not by critics, or even its composer, but by musicians.

Of course, there were still detractors: in 1855, a critic watched Joachim perform the concerto, then told him afterwards: “This is all very nice, but now I’d like to hear you play a real violin piece.”

 

5. A nineteenth-century classic

Nowadays, both Beethoven and his Violin Concerto are canonical, and safe from such criticisms. General opinion is that it redefined the relationship between soloist and orchestra, and stood at the intersection between the Classical and Romantic eras. Beethoven’s is usually considered the first of the five great nineteenth-century violin concertos, although trying to pin these down is like the world’s nichest musical chairs: other contenders include Brahms, Bruch, Lalo (for the cognoscenti), Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky.

 

Well, there’s nothing like a live performance to help you decide! We’re playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on 12 January 2023 at 7.30pm at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. Our Artist-in-Residence, Leia Zhu, is our soloist for this piece.

© Jessica Peng 2022

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.

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

Welcoming Jessica Coleman to our violin section

We are delighted to welcome Scottish violinist Jessica Coleman as second violin in our orchestra.

Jessica is a sought-after chamber and orchestral musician based in London. She began learning the violin aged four and went on to study at Chetham’s School of Music and the Royal College of Music with Jan Repko, Detlef Hahn and Gaby Lester. During her time at the RCM, Jessica formed a successful string quartet with which she performed at such venues as Wigmore Hall, Kings Place, and the Royal Albert Hall. Jessica remains passionate about chamber music and enjoys pairing her orchestral work with exciting ensemble-based projects.

In 2017, Jessica was a member of Southbank Sinfonia, and has since built up a successful freelance career working with many of the top chamber and symphony orchestras across the country.

Jessica believes in making music widely accessible and has been particularly inspired by our strong community presence. She has loved working with us over the past year and is delighted to be joining as a permanent member.

 

Hit Replay: Emma Harding’s Top 5 Tracks

Martin Smith launches the first in a series of blogs for Scala Radio showing the impact of Coronavirus lockdown on musicians