Talking Classical

One late-summer day in 1912, a young man collapsed at West Croydon station. A few days later he was dead, of pneumonia exacerbated by exhaustion through overwork. His name was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and he was Britain's first successful black classical composer.

He'd made a huge error: he had sold his publisher the rights to a choral work entitled Hiawatha's Wedding Feast for a flat fee of £15 15s. The oratorio became the most popular piece of its kind in the UK since Handel's Messiah - but its hapless composer, struggling to support his wife and daughter through teaching, conducting, and writing light music, saw no benefit from it.

This year, Coleridge-Taylor's greatest work: his Violin Concerto in G minor has made it to the Proms. Since its premiere in America less than three months before the composer's death, it has been performed only a handful of times - and Coleridge-Taylor, who couldn't make the journey to the US premiere, did not live to hear it. Now it is ripe for rediscovery yet, inevitably, faces being pigeonholed as a dusty British rarity. But the concerto isn't only British in character; it's far too beautiful for the "rarity" shelf; and it contains an agenda that speaks volumes about the composer's pride in his mingled English and African heritage.

Coleridge-Taylor was born in 1875, the son of an English mother and a father from Sierra Leone. As well as becoming one of his generation's most promising composers, he was an early campaigner in the black activist movement in Britain, feeling that he had a personal mission to boost the dignity of his race (although he was half-African, he took after his father in appearance). He was greatly influenced by the black American poet PL Dunbar and founded a newspaper in London, The African and Orient Review, with his Pan-Africanist friend Duse Mohammed Ali. Many of his works were based on the stories and folk music of Afro-Americans and Amerindians. He chose to set Hiawatha largely because he identified with its idealistic images of a race that was oppressed yet proud and beautiful.

The violin concerto was commissioned by an American benefactor for the American violinist Maud Powell, and Coleridge-Taylor's first idea was to base the piece on Negro spirituals. Yet, after completing the work, he withdrew it and wrote a new, entirely original, concerto. Yet the inspiration of the spirituals lingers tellingly in some of its luscious, abundant melodies.

"The music is in some ways extremely British, but also open to many different cultures," says Philippe Graffin, the violin soloist at the Prom and on the concerto's first recording. "There's certainly the influence of Negro spirituals in the opening theme, and in the slow movement one can hear an element of oriental exoticism, rather like Puccini's Madama Butterfly."

Coleridge-Taylor's father, a doctor, had returned to Sierra Leone upon discovering that the Victorian English did not want to be treated by a black man. As a violin and composition student at the Royal College of Music, Coleridge-Taylor was sometimes the butt of jibes from his classmates. Once, his composition professor, Charles Stanford, leapt to his defence, telling the class that he had "more talent in his little finger" than the rest of them put together. Later, he contemplated moving to the USA, where he had been welcomed as a hero and dubbed "the black Mahler".

A major influence in the piece is Coleridge-Taylor's musical idol, Dvorak - whose use of Negro spirituals and passion for Longfellow's Hiawatha had a profound impact on the young British composer. The presence of Elgar, who admired and encouraged Coleridge-Taylor, also lurks in the orchestration and the emotional directness - "he is far and away the cleverest fellow among the young men," Elgar opined."

Since its first enduring resurrection in modern times, on Avie Records last year, Classic FM has seized on the concert's gorgeous slow movement for frequent broadcasts, helping to make it a bestseller. "It's a perfect piece for the Proms," Graffin says. "It's beautifully written for the violin, but it isn't pompous, pretentious or over-ambitious; instead, it's sincere, meaningful and full of charm.'

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Violin Concerto will be played at Prom 35, Royal Albert Hall, London SW9 (020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms) on 9 August

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing