Chances are that many of you will find the name of today’s composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, somewhat familiar, but chances are that many of you will be thinking instead of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, after whom he was named. Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn, London in 1875 to an English mother and a father of mixed European and African descent. Said father, Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, had emigrated from Sierra Leone to train as a doctor in London, but in the face of white British patients who refused to let him treat them without a white doctor supervising things, he returned to Africa before he knew that his lover, Alice Hare Martin, was pregnant. (Martin and Taylor were never married, apparently due to complications in Martin’s own family life.)
On or around his fifth birthday, Coleridge-Taylor began playing the violin, and by the age of 15, he had enrolled in the Royal Conservatory to continue his studies. Two years into a projected three-year program, he switched from violin to composition, working under Charles Villiers Stanford. The older composer was quickly impressed with Coleridge-Taylor’s abilities, declaring him one of his two most brilliant students — no mean praise considering he also taught Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, Gustav Holst, and Ralph Vaughan Williams! (The other most brilliant student was William Hurlstone, whose bassoon sonata may well turn up here before long.) Thanks to a referral from Edward Elgar, Coleridge-Taylor’s successes came thick and fast, first with the Ballade in 1898 and then, a few weeks later, with the oratorio Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, which soon rivaled Händel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah for popularity. (It would be performed over 200 times in England alone in the next half-decade, and was staged annually in Royal Albert Hall until the outbreak of the Second World War.)
Later composers would’ve had a windfall from such a success, but music publishing deals at the time gave composers no performance royalties, and so the runaway popularity of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast did nothing to help Coleridge-Taylor’s financial situation. It did, however, afford him the opportunity to travel, and he made his first of three trips to the United States in 1904, where he met with such illustrious figures as Booker T Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt. His works had become quite popular on this side of the Atlantic, and many in the African-American community at the time held him up as a shining example of what black people could accomplish. Coleridge-Taylor himself actively identified with his African heritage and was involved in several pan-Africanist groups (he had been the youngest delegate to the first ever Pan-African Conference in London in 1900).
Even so, to make ends meet, Coleridge-Taylor had to take numerous jobs and positions, many of them part-time or one-off festival events. By 1912, he was a lecturer or professor at no fewer than four conservatories, and was also conducting, adjudicating, and teaching privately in addition. That workload took a grave toll on his health, and he died of pneumonia later that year, at the age of 37, after collapsing in the middle of a train station. Such was his stature at the time that King George V granted his widow a pension of £100 per year. Additionally, the lack of royalties from Hiawatha was a major factor in the formation of the Performing Rights Society, a group dedicated to collecting and managing such royalties for future musicians. (The group still exists, altho they’ve gone thru a merger or two, and the mission and focus have expanded somewhat since their founding in 1914). Coleridge-Taylor’s status faded considerably after the Second World War, and many of his works have only recently been published or re-published for the first time.
Right around the time Coleridge-Taylor enrolled in the Royal Conservatory, the German composer Johannes Brahms wrote a quintet for clarinet and string quartet, which received its première in November 1891. On becoming familiar with it, Stanford (the composition teacher at the Royal Conservatory) remarked offhand that no one would ever be able to compose for that instrumentation without the influence of Brahms. Coleridge-Taylor took this as a challenge.
If the resulting quintet for clarinet and strings in F# minor had been written by a mature, fully-fledged composer, it would already be astonishing; that it was written by a teenager with few years of formal study under his belt is mind-blowing. A short, unsettled introduction leads to the first theme in the clarinet, a melody that has distinct echoes of the English folk song tradition. The ensemble goes to town on this theme, breaking it into pieces and tossing them back and forth in a deft, contrapuntal texture. At one point, they almost coalesce into a new melody, but this quickly peters out into a quiet pause. The clarinet then drops out to let the string quartet unveil the second theme proper, a delicate, lilting affair that seems always on the brink of blossoming into a waltz. Despite the occasional stormy passage, a bright, carefree mood prevails, and this section closes with a decidedly sunny grace*.
Development of these themes brings turbulence to the fore with a vengeance, but their singing character shines thru even at the music’s darkest, and there is always a sense of hopeful forward motion. A brilliant flight upwards in the violins launches the brusquely efficient recapitulation, which dispenses with much of the tumbling-about that occupied the opening. This time, the clarinet is in on the second, waltzy theme from its first reappearance, and the sunny mood is abruptly snuffed out by a curt restatement of the opening theme that brings the movement to a swift, decisive close.
Gentle, tender melodies lounge languid over lush harmonies in the second movement. There is, once again, something effortlessly songlike in these lines, but there are hints, perhaps, of the African-American spirituals he would become so enamored of as his life went on. After several florid elaborations, there is a glistening, dewy interlude that slides down from the instruments’ upper registers, calling to mind the gentle ringing of distant bells. Just as tenderly, the movement slips back into the opening material, alternating plaintive simplicity with rapturous ornamentation. After an interlude that threatens to turn into a clarinet cadenza, the movement subsides into peaceful, almost religious, silence.
Edgy, skittish rhythms break the spell and get the scherzo underway, playfully alternating between dividing the pulse into groups of two or groups of three. By turns exuberant, sneaky, gleeful, and bemused, the music skips seamlessly from mood to mood, turning on a dime and never needing to pause for breath. A somewhat more staid trio ensues, relishing a brief moment of late-Victorian refinement with balanced, repeated melodies spinning out over oscillations in the lower voices before the irreverent scherzo returns to thumb its nose at all that, unexpectedly ending by pulling the rug out from under the movement’s feet.
The finale wastes no time in getting back to the minor mood, with a lively, running melody featuring a strong offbeat accent. After a frenetic bout of musical activity, this calms to a more stately response, one that weathers several eruptions of the opening hustle and bustle. However hushed, that hustle and bustle soon breaks thru, propelling the movement forward with overlapping entries and repeated re-starts. The stately music makes several attempts at reasserting itself, but it can never wholly banish the twitchy undercurrent. Even as the music slows into the final stretch, the calm that happened the first time seems no longer attainable. Instead of that music, Coleridge-Taylor unexpectedly interjects a beatific echo of the second movement, which proves to be the key to flipping the music into the major mode for good, and the piece ends with an exuberant re-working of its very first melody.
*In keeping with the convention of the time, the sheet music indicates that this entire section should be repeated. (It’s the exposition of a sonata-form movement, for those with a grounding in the pertinent theory.) This recording doesn’t do that, which I find Disappointing. To compound my frustration, it looks like there is a professional recording out there that takes the repeat (a recording that I suspect is also tighter and better balanced than this one to boot), but alas! it is not streaming anywhere online.