Heart & Hereafter: Elizabeth Llewellyn shines a lustrous light on the songs of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Last September, soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn made her belated Wigmore Hall debut, an occasion which introduced me to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Six Sorrow Songs – settings of Christina Rossetti’s poetry which I described as the ‘peak’ of a marvellous recital.  These songs, which draw their title from W.E.B. Du Bois’s comment upon the negro spirituals which he believed were an essential part of American cultural expression, seemed to me to ‘tremble with emotion, suffering and resilience’ and to be in need of ‘an interpreter to whom both the words and music speak with directness and honesty.  Llewellyn, British-born and of Jamaican descent, is one such interpreter’.

What a delight, then, that Llewellyn and Lepper have returned to Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), recording 25 of his songs on their recently released disc, Heart & Hereafter, on the Orchid Classics label.  This debut recital disc is the fruit of several years of research, in the British Library and through emails to the US, that Llewellyn undertook after a chance remark by Lepper in 2012 prompted her to explore the British composer’s life, times and song oeuvre.  In the liner booklet she explains, “Where I had initially thought there were thirty or so songs, I had discovered that there are hundreds … and many of them very fine indeed. […] Recordings were patchy – the odd song would turn up on albums by such singers as Stuart Burrows or Felicity Palmer, or on very old recordings of recitals by Dorothy Maynor or Webster Booth; also, a few semi-professional recordings.  I felt that the quality and breadth of Coleridge-Taylor’s song output deserved more careful curation and a much more passionate advocacy.”

The evidence of this recording suggests that Llewellyn is right about the range and quality of Coleridge-Taylor’s achievement in song, and she herself is not just a passionate but also a deeply persuasive advocate for this music, eloquent in both her performances and her written accounts of the songs.  The disc opens with the Six Sorrow Songs.  They are infused with turbulence and intensity, and Llewellyn’s ample, relaxed soprano magnifies their heights.  Lepper issues an urgent call to attention in the opening bar of ‘Oh, what comes over the sea’, the piano’s right-hand rumblings reflecting the moaning wind and sweeping tides, and Llewellyn is alert to the innate sense of looming emotional and spiritual crisis, imbuing the final, chromatically descending diminuendo with melancholy weight.  The directness and melodic innocence of ‘When I am dead, my dearest’ is beautifully served by the glossiness of Llewellyn’s soprano, and enhanced by Lepper’s expressive rubatos which tug at the even crotchets; the piano’s triplets and syncopations create a lovely unhurried quality in the following song too, ‘Oh, roses for the flush of youth’, in which the soprano’s dusky lower register conveys the shadows of premature loss.  The troubling antithesis of ‘She sat and sang always’, contrasting hope and despair, is evoked by the exotic colourings and the restless vocal rises and falls, while the falling piano motifs of ‘Unmindful of the roses’ press forward urgently, suggesting the tension between remembrance and forgetting.  The final song of the set, ‘Too late for love!’, tells a persuasive narrative of a woman who has died with her desire unfulfilled: the narrator instructs the belatedly returning lover that she who is lost must be commemorated with crown and flowers, and the song ends with the bitter, tragic admonition, “You should have wept her yesterday”, uttered quietly but with telling truthfulness by Llewellyn.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London and spent most of his life in the Croydon area.  His father, the son of a Freetown trader of Yoruba descent, had travelled to London from Sierra Leone to study medicine at King’s College, but returned to West Africa in 1879, before his son was born.  Coleridge-Taylor never visited Africa, yet he was proud of his African heritage and, especially after his first visit to the US in 1904, became an advocate for African American culture.  At the age of 23 he received recognition for his setting of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, but as early as 1897 he was consciously projecting himself as a composer alert to African sensibilities, as evidenced by his African Romances Op.17, which were prompted by Coleridge-Taylor’s friendship with the Afro-American poet Paul Dunbar whom he had met in London the preceding year. 

These are pleasingly tuneful songs, with a dash of heady perfume – in a harmonic hue or pianistic flourish – here and there.  In ‘An African love song’, Llewellyn intimates a sensuous that belies the simplicity of the verse form and melodicism, glistening in the images of “My lip to thy lips” and kisses which “are wine”.  Lepper throbs through the rippling and harmonically charged arpeggiated chords, again suggesting a sublimated passion beneath the outward repose.  Llewellyn remarks that some of the songs, such as ‘Dawn’ and ‘A starry night’ are “strongly reminiscent of the Jamaican Anansi stories of my childhood […] – an oral tradition of stories from Africa, about ‘the spider Anansi as the trickster hero of the Gold Coast’.  Laced with riddles, they often had an element of both fun and the cautionary tale, but also assumed the task of explaining how much of the animal or natural world came to be.”  The soprano’s fable about the origins of ‘Dawn’ is enchanting – Romantic feeling surging, then swiftly curtailed (“Night woke to blush; the sprite was gone.”), finally released in all its transcendent celestial glory: “Men saw the blush and called it Dawn.”  ‘Ballad’ and ‘Over the hills’ confirm Coleridge-Taylor’s instinctive sense of the melody that resides within a text, and Llewellyn communicates this strength with affection and warmth, as Lepper exploits the expressive details in the accompaniment with uncomplicated fluency.

Llewellyn notes that a bound published score of the African Romances also includes the Southern Love Songs of 1896, and that both are inscribed to a fellow student at the Royal College of Music and close friend of Coleridge-Taylor, Mamie Fraser.  She includes three of the five songs here, which embody the Victorian taste for the pseudo-exotic and ‘oriental’, beginning with ‘Minguillo’ which sets a translation by J.G. Lockhart of an ancient Spanish ballad and depicts the teasing flirtations of a young lass who begs her beloved to return her kiss, to ‘balance things up’, in order that her mother might not chide her for being profligately wanton!  Llewellyn captures the mischievous sparkle and youthful indignance wonderfully, and Lepper’s playout is a dismissively nonchalant shrug.  Longfellow’s ‘If thou art sleeping, maiden’, after a Portuguese source, presents the poet-speaker’s appeal to his beloved to awaken and flee ‘o’er meadow and mount and moor’.  Llewellyn and Lepper capture the conspiratorial air, and the wispy ornamentations conjure intrigue and a delicious anticipation of the sensations of dewy grass on naked feet.  ‘Tears’, in contrast, has a touching sincerity, enhanced by the wistful pentatonicism.  Llewellyn’s soprano glides silkily through the simple melody, shining purely; the contrast between the aspiring hopes of noontime, “My love will soon be here” and the dejection of the night, “My dream of joy is fled”, is articulated with sensitivity. 

Coleridge-Taylor’s Five Fairy Ballads (1909) set the words of the composer’sSierra Leonean friend, Kathleen Easmon, a missionary and artist who was the first West African to earn a diploma from the Royal College of Arts.  ‘Big Lady Moon’ was an encore at Wigmore Hall; here’s it’s a sumptuous treat – though Llewellyn’s vibrant soprano never overwhelms the slightness of the song, which in fact conveys some of the childlike rhetorical confidence of Stephen Crane’s succinct poem, ‘A Man Said to the Universe’.

A sequence titled ‘Literary Figures’ brings together Coleridge-Taylor’s settings of Radclyffe-Hall – three Songs of Sun and Shade (1911) – Goethe, Rossetti, Browning and others.  ‘Thou are risen, my beloved’ literally pulsates with sensual passion, Lepper’s spread chords in the outer verses tremulous at first then expanding into luxurious rapture as the vocal line soars with operatic magnitude.  The stylish charm – graceful decorations, languorous syncopations – and exquisite floating pianissimos of ‘You lay so still in the sunshine’ suggest an urbane gentility, but a sensuousness infuses the softness with an electrical charge which is mesmerising and magical.  The enchantment overspills into the lilting high-spirits of ‘Thou hast bewitched me’.  ‘A king there lived in Thule’ was one of Coleridge-Taylor’s incidental songs – translated from Goethe’s Faust by playwrights Stephen Phillips and J. Comyns Carr and dedicated to the West End star, Marie Löhr – and its direct narrative is coloured by some imaginative pictorialism, both elements beguilingly conveyed by Llewellyn.  There’s more untimely death and grief in ‘A Lament’, a setting of Rossetti’s dirge ‘Why were you born when the snow was falling?’, which conflates the turning seasons with the cycles of human life and death.  The conversation between triple and duple time motifs, and the dreamy quality that Llewellyn and Lepper conjure, suggest the impossibility of answering the rhetorical questions that the poem poses.

Three songs from the 1898 set, Six Songs Op.37, conclude the disc.  In ‘Canoe Song’ Lepper’s restless fluttering conveys the boat’s urgent journey to its ambiguous destination, while in ‘You’ll love me yet!’ Llewellyn communicates the all-consuming determination of Browning’s poet-speaker to win his beloved’s affection.  Coleridge-Taylor’s setting captures the slight hesitancy evoked by Browning’s use of caesura, though the final image is one of absolute dedication, the rewards of which are worth ‘a thousand pains’: “What’s death? – You’ll love me yet!”  Jessie Adelaide Middleton (1864-1933) is best known for her many ghost stories and her Ghost Book Trilogy.  Coleridge-Taylor’s setting of ‘Life and Death’ (1914) is succinct but has a generosity and glamour which Llewellyn describes as “straight out of the 1930s film-music playbook”.  She asks, “Given that the composer died prematurely more than twenty years before this era in 1912″ what sort of music might he have written had he lived? 

One can’t answer that question, but Heart & Hereafter certainly leaves one wanting more.  The disc is subtitled ‘Collected songs of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’, which suggests, I hope, that there will be more of the composer’s song oeuvre to come from Llewellyn and Lepper.

Claire Seymour

Heart & Hereafter: Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano), Simon Lepper (piano)

Six Sorrow Songs Op.57; ‘Minguillo’, ‘If thou art sleeping, maiden’ and ‘Tears’ from Southern Love Songs Op.12; African Romances Op.17; ‘Big Lady Moon’ from Five Fairy Ballads; ‘Thou art risen, my beloved’, ‘You lay so still in the sunshine’, ‘Thou hast bewitched me, beloved’ and ‘A king there lived in Thule’ from Songs of Sun and Shade; ‘A Lament’ (after Goethe’s Faust); ‘Canoe Song’, ‘You’ll love me yet’ and ‘Life and Death’ from Six Songs Op.37.

ORCHID CLASSICS ORC 100164 [55.34]

ABOVE: Elizabeth Llewellyn (c) Frances Marshall