Today’s post is about is the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society founded in Washington D.C. in 1903.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor choral society founded by black singers in Washington DC (1906)
This society was explicitly dedicated, as you may expect given the name, to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (not the guy who wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) a popular English composer. As you may notice, this choral society is made up of all African Americans (the orchestra was not a part of the society). Their express purpose was to practice and then perform the works of Coleridge-Taylor.
In November of 1906, they put on a public performance of some of the works this composer had written a few years before. Of particular note to us as individuals studying American music and race, was the piece performed called “Hiawatha’s Wedding”. As you may expect, this piece had problematic aspects to it that must be critically evaluated. Also of note however, is the fact that the concert was attended by many including a substantial white audience of which part were members of President Roosevelt’s cabinet. This concert had been preceded by a buzz of excitement within Washington DC because of the composer’s visit and Coleridge-Taylor would even be invited to meet the President at the White House.
This choral festival performance of his work is notable because of the notoriety it received especially when we consider the generally racist attitude of white America. Also of note is the fact that this performance was a part of a trend in America that included many white choral societies who had sung his work around the country pretty much right after its debut in London.Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was celebrated as an exceptional composer of an excellent piece of Western choral music by these choral groups. Simultaneously, he was held up as an exemplar of black excellence by leading African American intellectuals like WEB DuBois and he saw himself as a part of that movement to prove the true ability of black people.
Now, we return to the piece “Hiawatha’s Wedding” itself.
If you listen to it, it sounds like one would expect it to as a Western choral piece. But let us look at a sample of the lyrics:
To the sound of flutes and singing
To the sound of drums and voices
Rose the handsome Pau-Puk-Keewis
And began his mystic dances
Now, this may not seem so bad but the vernacular used is important. For instance, the name “Pau-Puk-Keewis” is something that was made up, probably because it “sounds” Native American. Also, this use of the world ‘mystic’ is a marker of this idea that is constantly maintained about Native Americans as some kind of “exotic other”. Yet this piece was accepted into the mainstream (white) culture enthusiastically.
On one hand, this work should be celebrated because it was an unprecedented in terms of reception by a still segregated country of a black composer. It caused some white Americans to re-evaluate their racist assumptions about the abilities of black people because they were so impressed with his work. It is also another example of how artistic work in the United States is more integrated than it is separate.
Yet the work has problems. It still had stereotypical portrayals of the Native Americans and reinforced the idea of the “Vanishing Indian” Blim articulated. It falls back on the sonic indicators of Native Americans, specifically that of a beating drum, again and again. It can be understood as racist because this image has an element of nostalgia that often allows the writers to distance themselves from issues of race, or in some cases address it by not addressing it, as identified by Carol Oja. It has a reductionist perspective about its subjects because it describes them only in a way that was normalized at the time, as people who were prone to singing and dancing. Not to mention the fact that in order for these black people to be respected and celebrated they had to assimilate to Western culture by composing and performing in this Western choral tradition.
One last note: although this piece may have been written by an English composer, it remains well within the realm of what we are talking about in American music because it deals with the same subjects, has the same problems, and remains a part of American culture.