4 Novelletten, Op. 52 (1903)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912)
4 Novelletten, Op. 52 (1903)
Andante con moto
The life and career of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is one of the most poignant of any composer of the early twentieth century. He was born in London in 1875, the illegitimate son of a doctor from Sierra Leone and a domestic servant, and was brought up by his mother’s family in the London commuter town of Croydon. Coleridge-Taylor was something of a musical prodigy. He entered the Royal College of Music (RCM) in 1890 as a violin student, but his vocation lay in composition; and here his rise was meteoric. In 1891, one of his anthems was published by Novello (a remarkable achievement for a sixteen-year-old); in 1892, he began to study composition with Charles Villiers Stanford; in 1893 he was awarded an open scholarship to the RCM for composition; and in 1895 (the year that he completed his Symphony in A Minor) and 1896 he won the RCM’s Lesley Alexander composition prize, ahead of Vaughan Williams and Holst among others. In 1898, his Ballade in A Minor was performed at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, and his cantata, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, a setting of part of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, received its premiere under Stanford at the RCM to critical acclaim.
These early successes promised a distinguished career for Coleridge-Taylor, but it didn’t quite work out that way. A relatively conservative composer—his main influences were Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, rather than Wagner—he was superseded stylistically by the more progressive Edward Elgar. He also turned away from the large-scale genres that had brought him to the public’s attention, concentrating instead on incidental music for the theatre and light music. He also took on long-term positions in education (as Professor of Composition at the Guildhall and Trinity College of Music) and conducting (as permanent conductor of the Handel Society from 1904). His tragically early death, from pneumonia, in 1912, left a sense of what might have been; and it has only been in recent years that audiences have begun to rediscover his melodious, well-crafted music.
Perhaps the most important development in Coleridge-Taylor’s life was a meeting, in 1897, with the African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, following which the mixed-race composer began to explore his African ancestry. This took the form of a number of compositions on African or Caribbean subjects and a desire to improve the status of African-American musicians. The success of Hiawatha led in 1901 to the establishment of the Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society for African-American singers in Washington DC. Coleridge-Taylor conducted this choir twice, in visits to the USA in 1904 and 1906.
Among Coleridge-Taylor’s Caribbean-inspired works is a set of five unpublished Haytian (Haitian) Dances, four of which were arranged in 1903 for strings, tambourine and triangle, and given the Schumannesque title, ‘Novelletten’. Violinist Ethel Barns, accompanied at the piano by the composer, performed two of the Novelletten at the Bechstein Hall in London on 10 February 1903; four days later, Dan Godfrey conducted the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in a performance of the orchestral version.
The opening movement is a Dvořák-like waltz in ternary form, with contrasting melodies for the violins in A major and the violas and cellos in F major. The whimsical second movement is also in ternary form; here, a sedate 2/4 dance in C major in the outer sections is contrasted with a livelier 6/8 section in E major. The third movement, described as a ‘Valse’, again alternates a slower passage in A minor, which begins with a solo violin melody above a tremolando accompaniment, with a faster one in F major. The finale in D major is characterised by lively, often off-beat rhythms in the outer sections, and unusual modulations in the melodies for cello and first violins that make up the central part of the movement. The percussion instruments add colour and sparkle throughout the work, the tambourine in particular providing an exotic touch.
© Aidan Thomson (2023)