The Three Choirs Festival is the world’s oldest music festival. For over three hundred years, the choirs of the cathedrals of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester have been coming together to sing.
In many ways, British music was defined by the Three Choirs Festival well into the mid 20th century: it is the epicentre of a grand tradition. Hearing Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha in Gloucester Cathedral was significant, because the Festival was instrumental in bringing the composer to prominence. While still a student, Coleridge-Taylor came to the attention of Alfred Jaeger and Edward Elgar. The Three Choirs Festival gave him his first big commission in 1897, on the express recommendation of Elgar. Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast followed soon after, then the full Song of Hiawatha we were privileged to hear. By the age of 25, Coleridge-Taylor was a resounding success.
Coleridge-Taylor is sometimes called “The Black Mahler” but it’s a silly marketing gimmick. It’s musically illiterate. Coleridge-Taylor didn’t conduct opera and didn’t write symphonies. The Song of Hiawatha sits firmly in the oratorio tradition. If anything, Coleridge-Taylor was the “Black Elgar”. The Three Choirs Chorus sang with such fervour that the Elgarian aspects of the score shone with great conviction, even if the words were a little indistinct. But what joy it must have been for them to tackle this strange, almost hypnotic chant, and words like Pau-puk-Keewis, Chibiabos, Shaugodaya, Kuntassoo and Iagoo! Hiawatha is a Grand Sing and needs to be done on this grand scale.
The soloists stand forth from the chorus. Twenty years ago, Bryn Terfel sang the baritone part for the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera, under William Alwyn. He was brilliant, defining the whole piece with his presence, all the more striking because he sounded so young, No-one could compare, though Benedict Nelson did his best. Robin Tritschler sang the tenor part, negotiating the cruelly high cry “Awake ! my beloved” with ease. Hye-Youn Lee sang the soprano part with exceptional freshness and vitality. She’s a singer we should be hearing a lot more of.
Orchestrally, The Song of Hiawatha is rousing. London’s Philharmonia Orchestra played for Peter Nardone as if they were playing grand opera. The horn call that introduces the piece and runs throughout suggested Wagner. Both Siegfried and Hiawatha are Noble Savages, setting out on voyages of discovery. The pounding timpani, however, suggest the type of drums white people assumed Red Indians would play. They also anchor the orchestra in a way percussion would not perhaps control symphonic form for many years to come. The Song of Hiawatha is oratorio, but also influenced by new European influences. Englishmen didn’t really write opera until Peter Grimes in 1948. The Philharmonia were much livelier and more vivid than the WNO Orchestra on the recording.
Although Hiawatha hands his people over to missionaries to be civilized, it doesn’t sit well with the pious religious values of its time. Even Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, completed two years after Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, was considered racy in many circles because of its Catholic connections. But Hiawatha is important, not just for its exotic subject. Coleridge-Taylor may have chosen Longfellow’s text because of its unique syntax, imitating the repetitive chant of oral traditions. “By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, by the shining Big Sea Water”. Even the strange names come over like incantation. For a musician, this syntax translates into musical form. Coleridge-Taylor adapts the syntax into short rhythmic cells. Coleridge is experimenting, tentatively, with new form. How he would have responded to Stravinsky, to Picasso, to Diaghilev and to Ravel!
There are lyrical passages in Hiawatha that evoke the freshness and wonder of Dvor·k’s Symphony From the New World, written only five years before, and definitely “new” music. Yet Coleridge-Taylor’s style is distinctively his own. At this stage, Vaughan Williams, though slightly older, was still under the thumb of Charles Villiers Stanford and Delius was yet to find himself. Unlike, say, Granville Bantock, whose exoticism operated like fancy dress costume, Coleridge-Taylor absorbed alien ideas into his very artistic core. He listened to Black American music and adapted to create something original. Years later BartÛk would turn to Hungarian folk music to create new music, but Coleridge-Taylor was well on the way earlier. Perhaps he was attracted to Black music as a kind of atavistic quest for identity, since he never knew his father. But every time he looked in the mirror he must have been reminded that part of who he was remained a mystery. Vaughan Williams’s later discovery of English folk song seems very tame in comparison.
When Coleridge-Taylor collapsed and later died, on Croydon Railway Station in 1912, aged only 37, British music lost a true original, perhaps, even, its greatest hope after Elgar. Although he should not be judged by the colour of his skin, it’s an inescapable part of what he means to us today in multicultural Britain. He’s probably also influential in the United States where he was welcomed into the White House by the President, at a time when blacks entered only by the back door. When Coleridge-Taylor was born in 1875, being illegitimate was scandalous. Even though he wasn’t “deprived”, and there weren’t enough Black people around for prejudice to develop beyond curiosity, Coleridge-Taylor would have had to live with other people’s stereotypes, however veiled. So I hope we’ll be able to get away from the British music ghetto and the “Black Mahler” clichÈ and respect Coleridge-Taylor in a wider music and social history context.
Coleridge-Taylor’s The Song of Hiawatha from The Three Choirs Festival will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in September.
image_description=Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1905)
product_title=Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: The Song of Hiawatha
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=The Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester Cathedral, England, 1st August 2013