On the historic holiday of Evacuation Day—or St. Patrick’s Day for those less officially inclined—a small group of Bostonians were privy to a fine film about the African British composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). Hosted by Boston University’s Director of African American Studies, Allison Blakely, the musician and filmmaker Charles Kaufmann presented his two-hour opus, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and his Music in America, 1900-1912, at the university’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Room. The film mixes interviews and spoken commentary from a range of experts, extended musical performances, and even some interpretive dance. A careful balance is struck between musicological discussion and social history, demonstrating that Coleridge-Taylor played a significant role in both areas. Moreover, the film gives attention to Boston’s own connection with the composer as well as his triumphant first appearance in Washington, DC, in 1903. Kaufmann is well qualified to undertake this project, having founded the Longfellow Chorus in Portland, ME, in 2007, the great poet’s bicentenary, to annually perform choral and vocal settings of his poetry; among these Coleridge-Taylor’s Scenes from The Song of Hiawatha loom largest, and under Kaufmann’s direction the Longfellow Chorus has performed them and other works by a wide range of composers, assisted by some exceptional solo singers. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I have taken part in most of these performances either as keyboard player or choral singer, and therefore needed no introduction to the richness and beauty of this music.
We are shown from the start how thoroughly the cards were stacked against young Samuel, what long odds he was able to overcome. His father was an African who took his medical doctorate in London while enjoying a dalliance with a 17-year-old English girl, Alice Hare Martin; however, Victorian England could not accept him in his profession, and he returned to his native Sierra Leone in 1874, unaware that Alice now carried his child. With only the help of her working-class father, the single teen mother raised her son essentially alone until she ultimately married. Young Samuel was introduced to the violin by his grandfather and, playing his child-size fiddle, caught the attention of some people of means who subsequently underwrote his lessons and, finally, his studies at the Royal College of Music under the legendary teacher of composition, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. The film makes the point that, for a young black man interested in artistic and intellectual pursuits in Britain near the end of the 19th century, race became irrelevant if he demonstrated genuine talent, whereas in America this color barrier remained nearly insurmountable. Keenly proud of his heritage, SCT wrote much music based on African, African American, and native American themes. In his efforts to reveal these cultures to the larger British and American societies, the artist found common cause with such luminaries as W. E. B. Du Bois and the brothers J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson.
It is especially meaningful to view this film in Boston since one might argue this city was the nexus ultimately connecting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The poet began writing The Song of Hiawatha here in 1854 at the time of the Anthony Burns imbroglio: the escaped slave had been fiercely protected by abolitionists in Boston until Congress, acting under the execrable Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, sent federal troops to force his extradition back to the South. Poet and composer had a finely honed sense of social justice, each in his own time, and the lengthy poem made a good vehicle to decry the oppression of one race by another. Also here (though forgivably unmentioned in a film already covering a huge amount of material) was the Wa-Wan Press, a consortium of composers founded in 1901 and interested in preserving native Americans’ unwritten languages and music by incorporating each into their music. A song by one of these composers, Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946), has distinct similarity to one of SCT’s Hiawatha-based violin pieces played in the film.
The considerable time the film devotes to performances of music by young artists of color renders another valuable service both to them and to the audience. Project STEP, for example, is Boston’s outreach program to give young students of color access to classical music performances and instruction that most of them would rarely or never have; it is represented by both its Co-Artistic Director, Mariana Green, and a star student, Kerby Roberson. Both are heard playing the violin as well as thoughtfully discussing the music. (Roberson parallels SCT in being an accomplished pre-teen violinist.) Additionally, Kaufmann has assembled a “Longfellow Chorus in Washington,” an ensemble of black singers based in Washington, DC’s storied Metropolitan A.M.E. Church which, beginning in 1903, hosted several visits by SCT and extensive performances of his music. Under the church’s current Minister of Music, Lester Green, the chorus is heard in excerpts from Hiawatha and other pieces; here too, members share reflections about discovering a brilliant composer they had never encountered before. Perhaps the emotional peak of the film is tenor Rodrick Dixon’s exquisite singing of Hiawatha’s love song “Onaway! Awake, beloved!”, interwoven with beautiful images of Kamille Upshaw dancing seemingly spontaneously as she is inspired by the text and music. Thus, in a relatively short time we begin to hear the range of SCT’s art: the proto-jazz of some of the smaller violin pieces; the charming Victorian ballad “How Shall I Woo Thee?”; the moving treatment of “Negro melodies,” most notably, “Deep River” and “Keep Me From Sinking Down”; and passionate melody combined with impeccable Royal College of Music training that produced “Onaway!”
Having had a “signal victory” on both sides of the Atlantic (the complete Hiawatha’s world premiere in 1900 was given by the Royal Choral Society, conducted by SCT, in the gigantic spaces of the Royal Albert Hall), Coleridge-Taylor cultivated many estimable friends, including Du Bois and the Johnson brothers, the writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, baritone Harry T. Burleigh, tenor Roland Hayes, and America’s first internationally famous violinist, Maud Powell. There was a rich cultural cross-fertilization, with SCT setting many Dunbar poems as well as writing smaller pieces and a violin concerto expressly for Powell to play. Although not black herself, Powell, like Longfellow before her, was determined genteelly to undermine the near-ubiquitous structure of racial oppression of her day; her chosen method was to advocate for composers of color, playing their works to prove that, given a chance, black artists’ talent equaled that of their white counterparts. Du Bois and the Johnsons, were not slow to perceive and employ the much-sought-after composer’s capacity to “uplift the race.” Even the Intelligencer itself can claim an indirect association with SCT since he enjoyed “a delightful evening” at the Harvard Musical Association on December 9, 1904; regrettably, no printed record of what transpired that evening has come down to us, merely a copy of the Hiawatha score, personally inscribed by SCT with the above phrase.
The film doesn’t linger on the composer’s tragically early death from pneumonia on September 1, 1912; it is enough to note the scale of what he accomplished in a mere 37 years. But it does include one marvelous memento of the time when Coleridge-Taylor reached the zenith of his popularity—beginning twelve years after his death. From 1924 to 1939 there was a quite amazing annual tradition of “staging” the Hiawatha scenes in Royal Albert Hall (capacity 5,200). In the words of Kenneth Alwyn, “[f]or two weeks every summer all roads to the hall were thronged with capacity audiences and close on a thousand ‘Red Indian’ performers. These ‘braves’ and ‘squaws’ came not from the ‘Land of the Dakotahs’ but from the concrete wigwams of Wapping, Tooting, Penge, Cheam and Coleridge-Taylor’s own village of Croydon—. . . send[ing] singing braves and squaws to the great ‘Pow-Wow’ in the Albert Hall Arena under the Great Chief of Music Dr. [Sir] Malcolm Sargent.” In some of the film’s choicest footage, we can see these respectable British choral singers done up as native American stereotypes: fringed buckskins, beads, braids, headbands with feathers, etc. Hideously politically incorrect by today’s standards (obligatory harumph), such “staging” must have enhanced the experience wonderfully for performers and audiences alike. World War II curtailed this remarkable yearly event, and it never resumed in peacetime. Its loss and changing musical tastes helped consign Coleridge-Taylor to increasing obscurity.
This fine film, touching, informative, and inspiring, appears to be the work of a man with a mission. Charles Kaufmann seems determined to make Samuel Coleridge-Taylor a household name once more among music lovers, and has spared no pains in ferreting out fascinating details of the composer’s personal and artistic development. To anyone interested in social history or musical history or both at a time of considerable ferment, this film can be wholeheartedly recommended.