Hiawatha's Wedding Feast can be read as a parallel
for the African-American experience, and African-American audiences
certainly took the work to their hearts. Twenty-Four Negro Melodies
also shows the influence of Coleridge-Taylor's friend, the
African-American poet Paul Dunbar. In a revealing quotation in the
preface to Twenty-Four Negro Melodies Coleridge-Taylor
writes: “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.”
Coleridge-Taylor also took a passionate interest in the issues
of race, the politics of colonial freedom, and in his own African
background. After reading the work of the African-American writer
W.E.B. Dubois, he attended the first Pan-African conference in London
in 1900 and became part of a loose circle of black activism. His
name was already well known in black America. In 1901 a Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Choral Society had been founded by black singers in Washington DC.
Coleridge-Taylor's first visit three years later was a grand occasion.
The US Marines Band was engaged, and the first concert took place
in Washington in front of an audience of 2,700, two thirds of them
black. Two further tours of the US reinforced the composer's reputation;
and, during the 1910 tour, Coleridge-Taylor conducted exclusively
white orchestras as well as African-Americans - an event without
precedent. In the following year he undertook his final commission,
the Violin Concerto, whose first version, on its way to
the US première, went down with the Titanic. By a strange
irony, the central movement was based on a spiritual entitled Keep
Me From Sinking Down.
Guest-curated for the British Library by Mike Phillips
Next - 'The music ends'