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Chamber Music Hawaii features Coleridge-Taylor
BY STEVEN MARK / firstname.lastname@example.org
This weekend’s Chamber Music Hawaii program features a little-known composer whose rediscovery is finding resonance in the era of Obama.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was of Creole and Caucasian descent, born in London to a mother with a musical family and a mixed-race father from Sierra Leone. Raised in England, he became a successful composer of classical music, and is thought to have been the only black of his time to gain such prominence.
He was lionized by music aficionados and black intellectuals in the United States, conducting major American orchestras and earning a visitation with President Theodore Roosevelt, becoming one of the few blacks to meet with an American president in that era. White musicians in New York called him “the African Mahler.”
CHAMBER MUSIC HAWAII: TRESEMBLE
Where: Paliku Theatre, Windward Community College
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $20-$25; students free
Info: 489-5038 or chambermusichawaii.org
Also: The program repeats at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Doris Duke Theatre
Chamber Music Hawaii musicians joined by University of Hawaii professor Jonathan Korth on piano will perform one of Coleridge-Taylor’s early works, a nonet for piano, strings and wind ensemble, in programs Sunday and Jan. 28.
As a young composer, Coleridge-Taylor was championed by Elgar, and his 1898 composition “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” — a setting of Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” — was sold out for its London premiere. That helped to make the composer a hero to American blacks.
He would visit the U.S. three times between 1903 and 1910, a period that saw some of “the first manifestations of the American civil rights movement,” said Charles Kaufman, a composer, conductor and choral director who is making a documentary about Coleridge-Taylor. It was a time when leaders like W.E. Dubois and Booker T. Washington, both of whom praised Coleridge-Taylor in various writings, were confronting Jim Crow laws and the backlash against equal rights for freed slaves.
“Here is this guy from England who has none of the restrictions they have in the United States … and he excels wherever he goes,” said Kaufman. “So the American intelligentsia in the black community are looking at Coleridge-Taylor and saying, ‘This is what we want.’”
Though steeped in British Victorian tradition, he would go on to incorporate influences from these experiences into his music, orchestrating melodies from the West Indies, Africa and African-American cultures to beautiful effect.
His promise was cut short by premature death from illness in 1912, while only in his 30s.
Coleridge-Taylor’s early death rendered him “the ‘Invisible Man’ of classical music,” said Kaufman.
In that era, black musicians were generally disinclined to study European music. In addition, “Victorian” music was buried in the wake of the world wars and more modern styles, Kaufman said.
Now, however, Coleridge-Taylor is beginning to regain some deserved attention. Aside from Kaufman’s film, which he plans to release this spring, a Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation has been established in the United Kingdom. New works have been commissioned in his name. Kaufman reports that in Washington D.C., a Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society has been established, performing his music.
The composer’s nonet is a student work, Kaufman pointed out: “It shows that he was a very, very talented composition student. You won’t think of it as student work. Every piece of music I’ve run into by Coleridge-Taylor is melodious, fun to play and fun to listen to.”
The Chamber Music Hawaii concert also features an octet for piano for wind and strings by Paul Juon, a Swiss-born composer from the same era as Coleridge-Taylor who was raised in Russia.
There were parallels between Juon and Coleridge-Taylor, said Chamber Music Hawaii’s Jonathan Parrish. “They were both outsiders in their own homes … who were both unlikely to rise in their own countries to some prominence in their time.”
Similarly, their compositions fit into the prototypical Late Romantic style and should be easy to enjoy.
“Both are from the turn of the century and are large, Romantic-in-scope kind of works, with prominent piano parts,” Parrish said. “If you like Romantic music or classic music in general, these pieces will be right down the middle of the road.”
“It’s always fun to hear something by a composer who you’ve never heard of,” Parrish said. “It just reminds us how much great music was composed that we don’t remember.”