COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: Hiawatha Overture / Petite Suite
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Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born on 15th August 1875 in London. His father was a Negro physician from Sierra Leone, West Africa, and hismother was an English woman. When the medical practice failed, his fatherreturned to Africa, deserting young Samuel and his mother. The boy'sdisadvantaged upbringing did not stifle his love of music. His violin studiesprogressed to the point where he was able to give his first public recital whenonly eight. He also sang as a choirboy in Croydon and, encouraged and helped byhis choirmaster, he eventually entered the Royal College of Music in 1890.
Initially he enrolled as a student of the violin, and in the same year hisfirst important composition, a Te Deum, was published.
In 1891, when Coleridge-Taylor was still only sixteen, Novellopublished one of his anthems, In Thee O Lord, followed by four more in1892. In 1892 he also began studying composition under Sir Charles Stanford,and won a composition scholarship in March 1893. At a chamber music concert in Croydonon 9th October 1893, the programme included Coleridge-Taylor's PianoQuintet, part of his Clarinet Sonata, and three of his songs, withthe composer at the piano.
Like most young composers, many of Coleridge-Taylor' s earlyworks received their first performances at students' events, and between 1894and 1897 Royal College of Music concerts included the Nonet, the ClarinetQuintet, Five Fantasiestücke for String Orchestra, and the StringQuartet in D minor. Stanford personally conducted the first threemovements of his Symphony in A minor in St. James's Hall (which laterbecame the Piccadilly Hotel) in 1896. It was hardly surprising that thisoutpouring of talent gained Coleridge-Taylor the Lesley Alexander composition prizein both 1895 and 1896. He completed his studies at the Royal College of Musicin 1897.
Away from the comforting security of the Royal College, Coleridge-Taylorwon his first commission in 1898 from the Three Choirs Festival. A valuableinfluence during this formative period of his career was A.J. Jaeger, who made Coleridge-Taylor'smusic known to Edward Elgar. It was Elgar who had recommended the youngcomposer for this festival commission, for which Coleridge-Taylor wrote his Balladein A minor for orchestra.
Two months later Sir Charles Stanford conducted the firstperformance of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast (the first part of the Hiawathatrilogy) at the Royal College of Music on 11th November 1988. From contemporary reports it does not appear to have been a very good performance, but thework was received with great enthusiasm from critics and public alike.
Coleridge-Taylor's genius now became evident to the musicalpublic at large, and in their eyes he had achieved fame overnight. The successof Hiawatha prompted many commissions from various music festivals, forwhich Coleridge-Taylor created his Overture to The Song of Hiawatha, TheDeath of Minnehaha, Hiawatha's Departure and various cantatas, of which ATale of Old Japan became the most highly regarded.
While at the Royal College of Music Coleridge-Taylor met hiswife Jessie Walmisley, a fellow student who came from Wallington in Surrey, andthey married on 30th December 1899 at the Church of Holy Trinity in Selhurst.
It was hardly surprising that they named their son, born on 15th October 1900,Hiawatha. A daughter, Gwendolen, who later adopted the name Avril was born on8th March 1903, and both children possessed considerable musical talents.
By now Coleridge-Taylor was moving into the field ofincidental music as another of his main areas of composition. Herbert BeerbohmTree commissioned his work for four plays by Stephen Phillips, Alfred Noyes's TheForest of Wild Thyme and Shakespeare's Othello. Coleridge-Tayloralso became recognised as an accomplished conductor.
As early as 1901 Coleridge-Taylor was appointed by theWestmoreland Festival, a position he held until 1904, and he became permanentconductor of the Handel Society from 1904 until his death. Many choral andorchestral societies also sought his services in this capacity. His scholarshipwas recognised by London's Trinity College of Music, who appointed himprofessor of composition in 1903. A similar position with the Guildhall Schoolof Music followed in 1910. Even before his first visit to the United States, in1901, a Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society was founded for black singers inWashington, D.C. He crossed the Atlantic in 1904, 1906 and 1910 to directperformances of his music. Described by New York orchestral players as the"black Mahler", he assumed a mission to dignify the Negro, and heregarded his 24 Negro Melodies as being of particular importance in thisrespect. He seriously considered emigrating to the United states so that hecould pursue this work more directly.
Coleridge-Taylor's musical idol had always been Dvořák,whose influences scholars have noted, often somewhat disparagingly, but fromtime to time, mainly in his shorter works, Coleridge-Taylor displayed amaturity and originality which fully justified his status, and the considerablesuccess accorded to him.
During his tragically short lifetime Coleridge-Taylor was tobecome best known for his choral and vocal music, but he was also very activein other musical forms. Reference books reveal an astounding output, rangingfrom his early Symphony to a Violin Concerto, ballads, pianomusic and many small instrumental and orchestral works. Some of his moreimportant works included: