The piano music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is surely one of the great treasures of the solo repertoire, too long overlooked but now rightly being rediscovered and brought back into the spotlight.
Schott Music, who published many of these works during the composer’s lifetime, have begun painstakingly re-releasing Coleridge-Taylor’s output in modern performing editions. Among the piano scores restored to the Schott catalogue, and the subject of this review, are the Three Humoresques Op.31 (1898), Three Cameos Op.56 (1904), and (perhaps best-known), Three Fours: Valse-Suite Op.71 (1909).
These pieces all offer wonderful examples of Coleridge-Taylor’s art, and would suit players at around UK Grade 8 to Associate Diploma level. So let’s take a closer look, and reflect on their value…
Born in London in 1875, Coleridge-Taylor was the illegitimate son of Daniel Taylor, a Creole doctor from Sierra Leone who practised in Croydon, and Englishwoman Alice Martin. He would go on to describe himself as an Anglo-African. Unaware of Alice’s pregnancy, his father had returned to Africa to take up a new position before Samuel was born; he eventually progressed to become Imperial Coroner for the Gambia.
Alice lived with her father, an enthusiastic amateur violinist, and in this humble but music-loving environment Samuel’s own prodigious gifts soon emerged. His grandfather paid for him to have music lessons, and at the age of 15 he became a student at the Royal College of Music in London. There he became friends with Vaughan Williams and Holst, and was a student of the composer Stanford.
Inspired by the popular national styles of Dvořák and Grieg, Coleridge-Taylor tapped into the musical heritage of Africa, the West Indies and Spirituals, so developing a unique and historically important compositional voice which is as rooted in black music as it is in the classical tradition. His significant output included opera, choral, vocal, instrumental and chamber works.
Coleridge-Taylor’s music quickly found huge success. He became the first British composer to gain fame in the United States, which he visited three times, and where he was personally invited to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Here in the UK, his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was greeted with a standing ovation at the Birmingham Festival in 1900, in stark contrast to the lukewarm reception given to the premiere of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius at the same event.
In 1899, Coleridge-Taylor married Jessie Walmisley, a fellow graduate of the Royal College. They had two children, Hiawatha (1900-1980) and Avril (1903-1998), both of whom later enjoyed careers in music. Supporting his growing family, he supplemented his composing income with teaching and performing. The workload took its toll, and in September 1912 he collapsed, dying of pneumonia shortly afterwards aged just 37.
In the decades which followed his early death, Coleridge-Taylor’s music remained hugely popular with audiences, but by the middle of the century this had abruptly changed. Introducing their new editions, Schott note:
“His music was performed at the Proms no less than 116 times between 1898 and 1939. In contrast, since 1940 his music has only been heard there on eleven occasions to date.”
Given his established position as one of Britain’s most popular and acclaimed composers, the suggestion that Coleridge-Taylor’s music simply went out of fashion seems collectively naive. While it is true that in sniffy academic circles the aesthetics of the modernists were fiercely championed in the post-war decades, this did not result in Elgar, Vaughan Williams or Delius being similarly consigned to obscurity.
Nor can the “cancelling” of Coleridge-Taylor be considered uniquely an indictment of the British arts establishment; having been so popular around the world, it is remarkable that his music disappeared almost entirely from view.
Introducing their publications, Schott say with a hint of regret:
“Like many works, at some point in the past [these pieces] became out of print. Schott Music is now very pleased to present this new modern performing edition with errors and inconsistencies from the original editions now corrected.”
Not before time then, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is regaining his reputation as one of the most magnificent musical talents that England has ever produced, his music restored to its rightful place.
Three Humoresques, Op.31
The Three humoresques Op.31 were first published in 1898 by Augener Ltd. Following George Augener’s retirement from the business in 1910, the whole catalogue (including 24 works by Coleridge-Taylor) was acquired by Schott.
The earliest of the three works considered in this review, the Humoresques immediately introduce us to the good-natured humour, melodic invention and characteristic charm that pervades Coleridge-Taylor’s music. In addition to the influences of Stanford, Dvořák and Grieg already mentioned, there are also signs of indebtedness to Brahms.
The first piece confirms the composer’s craftsmanship: beginning with the thematic cell from which the musical material is subsequently derived, he uses rhythmic displacement to obscure the downbeat and create anticipation. With unprepared key changes and chromatic passages, Coleridge-Taylor continues to surprise listeners while quickly rewarding them with the return of his quirky melody.
The subsequent pieces prove equally charismatic, each a miniature scherzo ripe with humour, melodic ingenuity and artistic finesse. All three pieces would be approachable for the Grade 8 pianist, and the work as a whole would make a wonderful concert item for the diploma student, as indeed it would for concert pianists and enthusiastic amateur performers.
Schott Music’s new edition appears (as do the other titles) in their Edition Schott house style, the embossed cover opening to a 28-page book printed on cream paper. Notation is beautifully and clearly engraved.
Fingering is not included, and the Preface (which is essentially the same in all three publications) is brief. Corrections made from previous editions are not specifically identified.
Three Cameos, Op.56
The Three Cameos Op.56 appeared six years later in 1904, by which time the influence of Spirituals has become a prominent feature of Coleridge-Taylor’s musical style. As in his breakthrough work Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, pentatonic melodies are enhanced here by gentle, insouciant chromaticism and a beguiling texture.
The influence of Brahms is again heard in the second Cameo, the most dramatic of the three. Coleridge-Taylor reportedly said that he wanted to do for the Spiritual what Brahms had achieved with Hungarian music, a telling point bearing in mind the Romantic gloss with which Brahms imbued his Hungarian Dances.
The third piece is the most gentle of the set, its lilting 6/8 rhythm underpinning a delicious melody, reminiscent of a nineteenth century Intermezzo.
Appealing though the Three Humoresques are, the Three Cameos seem to me still more inviting, showcasing as they do Coleridge-Taylor’s supreme gift for distinctive melody writing, and masterfully fusing the Late Romantic style with a musical language rooted in his black heritage.
Three Fours: Valse-Suite, Op.71
Eschewing its unassuming title, Three Fours Op.71 (1909) proves to be the most substantial and pianistically extravagant work of the three reviewed here, a concert suite comprising six waltzes that traverse a range of moods.
This is also the most well-known of the three works, having appeared in Joseph Smith’s Schirmer compilation Four Early 20th Century Piano Suites by Black Composers (1997, available here). In his introduction to that publication, Smith instructively writes:
“Throughout, these waltzes are enlivened by idiosyncratic, musicianly touches: for instance, the first waltz’s irregular phrasing (it includes five- and six-bar phrases) and the third waltz’s sudden shift to 2/4 seem the result of impulsive energy, the second’s partial canon and the fifth’s ambiguous hovering between relative major and minor, of intimate informality…
Three Fours is not typically English!”
Much as I have enjoyed Smith’s compendium (which also includes music by Harry T. Burleigh, R. Nathaniel Dett and Artie Matthews), the new edition from Schott is far preferable on account of its more spacious presentation and print clarity. Engraved on cream paper with a pristine modern music font, Schott deliver a score that can be recommended without reservation.
The six pieces appear modest in their demands at first, the first few being four pages long and devoid of obvious virtuoso flourishes. Played at speed, their challenges soon emerge however, and the later movements become longer and more formidable. A performance of the whole Suite would certainly make a dazzling recital highlight.
Special mention must be made of the second piece, a contrasting Andante with the most ravishing of melodies. It is truly perplexing that such astonishingly fine music has been so overlooked.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s music may have neither the imperialistic pomp nor the pastoralism of his British contemporaries, but if his works are less quintessentially English they surely make up for it with their cosmopolitan appeal and global resonance.
The Three Humoresques and Three Cameos reveal a craftsman who wrote as brilliantly for the piano as any of his peers, British or otherwise. Three Fours meanwhile surely deserves a place in the core recital repertoire promoted in conservatoires, concert halls and recording studios.
We must thank Schott for restoring these works to their catalogue with such a sensational set of publications. Here’s hoping for more: I am particularly keen to see Coleridge-Taylor’s epic piano masterpiece, the Twenty Four Negro Melodies Op.59, given the lavish Schott treatment.
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