Friday 05 August 2005
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
Final Top Gear reviewTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Michelle Watt's father says TV presenter killed herself because she was in constant pain
- 2 Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
- 3 'Help me I'm trapped in a factory' messages keep being found on bottles of vitamin water
- 4 North Korean defector flees to Finland 'with evidence of chemical testing on humans'
- 5 Greek debt crisis: The photograph that conveys the despair of Greece's elderly
Bad luck, One Direction: Paul McCartney doubts success of The Beatles will ever be matched again
This is surely the best way to watch Jaws
Game of Thrones season 6: Daenerys actress Emilia Clarke says '50/50 chance' Jon Snow is alive
Guillaume Tell's gang-rape scene caused uproar at the Royal Opera House – but the portrayal of extreme sex and violence on stage is nothing new
The last decade has produced just four UK festival headline acts
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture