“What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk-music, Dvorak for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro Melodies.”
The British composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, succeeded in preserving, uplifting and celebrating the music of Africans and African-Americans, just as his contemporaries did for their respective heritages. Coleridge-Taylor lived from 1875 to 1912, during the tail end of a “nationalist” movement in music. Composers across Europe and Russia sought to revitalize and glorify the folk songs, musical ideas and motifs associated with their nations’ people and history. A few other composers along this vein were Dvořák and Janáček in Czechoslovakia, Grieg in Norway, Sibelius in Finland, Albéniz in Spain, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia, and Coleridge-Taylor’s own teacher, Charles Villiers Stanford in Great Britain. Through this mighty conglomerate of artists we can understand the beauty and struggle of peoples far away from us in time and distance.
The culture of Africans and African-Americans is particularly rich in music. The toils and victories of these peoples have been carefully traced, through an oral tradition of song–a tradition with which Coleridge-Taylor was intimately familiar. This music encouraged farmers to labor all day in scorching heat, it helped a community to mourn its dead, it taught children to rise above their circumstances, it expressed deep praise and devotion to one’s Maker. Music united slaves and gave strength to their weary and abused bodies, keeping the eyes and heart on freedom’s promise. Music helped men sweating away in adjacent fields to know they weren’t alone in the battle. Music held hidden meanings that helped many outsmart their masters and escape. No words could express the pain, hope and joy of these peoples, but song united them in understanding.
Coleridge-Taylor chose 24 of these melodies to explore and celebrate as had not been done before. Covering a large range of geography–Southeast Africa, South Africa, West Africa, the West Indies, and America–the 24 melodies also cover a range of emotion and purpose. Coleridge-Taylor’s theme and variation setting of each helps us to meditate on the idea each song was created to express. His command of form, harmony, texture, and timbre is evident in pieces that stand on their own, needing no prior explanation of the original melody. A harmonic language reminiscent of Brahms, and the pianism of Liszt reflect rigorous training at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where Coleridge-Taylor enrolled as a 15-year-old. Alongside peers such as Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughn Williams, so much did Coleridge-Taylor excel that his music was performed publicly, as a student.
For these melodies, Coleridge-Taylor has chosen a clear setting of each; every track begins with an unambiguous statement of the melody, followed by variations that develop in complexity, and wind down to a simple restatement. Many octave doublings of the melody, simple but rapid arpeggiations, and a clear tonal center to each piece give the album a traditional, classical and sometimes hymn like feel. Liberal use of chromaticism and modal mixture, however, maintain interest and showcase Coleridge-Taylor’s creativity. Tracks such as “Warrior’s Song” use modal mixture similarly to Brahms, adding a fresh, yet dark element to the song. In pieces such as “Many Thousand Gone,” the thick texture, rolled chords and use of the lower register bring Liszt to mind, in his dense and overtly dramatic style. Coleridge-Taylor adds a lighter touch with pieces such as “Going Up,” arranged almost as a parlor song. Others, such as “Deep River,” are hymn like in their sincerity and reverence.
While each piece displays remarkable ingenuity on the composer’s part, the album in its entirety can feel a bit repetitive in sound and style. Perhaps the pieces were intended to be heard and contemplated one or two at a time, rather than 24 at once; the heightened sense of drama prevalent throughout each piece loses its effect when there are few sections that aren’t grandiose. The overall effect is slightly theatrical, perhaps because the instrument chosen for the recording is not one that produces delicate sounds well. The pianist, David Shaffer-Gottschalk, clearly has an excellent command of the instrument and an impressively clear tone. The effect of the album, however, could be stronger if he reserved the sweeping drama for a few key moments.
Other pieces of Coleridge-Taylor’s to look for are the 1898 “Ballade in A Minor” and “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” both of which received excellent critical acclaim, and placed the composer in a position of prominence and influence. An overview of his works and select discography can be found at AfriClassical.com as well as in the biography The Hiawatha Man: The Life & Work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, by Geoffrey Self (Scolar Press, 1995).
Posted by Kristen Hoffman