A Black Choral Group in a White World

Today’s post is about is the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society founded in Washington D.C. in 1903.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor choral society founded by black singers in Washington DC (1906)1

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.2 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. 4

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. 5 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.6 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.

Works Cited

  1. The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society November 1906. Pan africanism, race and the USA. British Library. http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/blackeuro/choralsocietylge.html.
  2. Janifer, Ellsworth. “Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in Washington.” Phylon (1960-) 28, no. 2 (1967): 185-96. doi:10.2307/273562.
  3. McGinty, Doris Evans. “”That You Came so Far to See Us”: Coleridge-Taylor in America.” Black Music Research Journal 21, no. 2 (2001): 197-234. doi:10.2307/3181603.

  4. Banfield, Stephen, Jeremy Dibble, and Anya Laurence. “Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel.” Grove Music Online. 17 Apr. 2018. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002248993.
  5. Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indian”. paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Vancouver, BC, November 4, 2016.
  6.  Oja, Carol. “West Side Story and The Music Man: whiteness, immigration, and race in the US during the late 1950s”. Studies in Musical Theatre 3, no. 1 (2009). https://music.fas.harvard.edu/WSS&MM2009.pdf.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

While less known today, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a prominent and influential English composer of the early 20th century. His works were so well received in both Europe and America that New York orchestral players described him as the “Black Mahler.” Although this comment is slightly problematic, the point it makes is easily understood. His most famous work, Longfellow’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, has been described as “haunting melodic phrases, bold harmonic scheme, and vivid orchestration.”

However, how does an English Composer fit in with a class focused “American Music”? In part it has to do with his collection of African melodies entitled Twenty-four negro melodies transcribed for the piano by S. Coleridge-Taylor. Op. 59. The work also includes a preface written by Booker T. Washington, a prominent American Educator and Leader in the African American Community in the early 20th century. In Washington’s Preface, he talks extensively on how much of relates back to slave music of American, and in turn, to Africa.  In particular this quote stood out,

Negro music is essentially spontaneous. In Africa it sprang into life at war dance, at funerals, and at marriage festivals. Upon the African foundation the plantation songs of the South were built.

Not only does this sound very similar to jazz, but it is a spontaneous character that gave Coleridge-Taylor’s music its character.

His work, moreover, possess not only charm but distinction, the individual note. The genuineness, the depth and intensity of his feeling, coupled with his mastery of technique, spontaneity, and ability to think in his own way, explain the force of the appeal his compositions make.

While this can be applied to all of Coleridge-Taylor’s works, Washington is of course referring to the 24 melodies Transcribed for piano. Something we have talked extensively in our class has been issues with authenticity. Something unique to this book is that Coleridge-Taylor address this in his forward. Instead of maintaining their authentic forms and sounds, he states that he is simply trying to elaborate on already pretty melodies, and while doing so, he clearly states that they are not true representations of the music and do loos some of their value when being removed from their cultural context. However, again related to topics discussed in our class, he makes these transcriptions in order to elevate and celebrate African music. By treating the music in this manner, I would consider Coleridge-Taylor as American of a composer as any American-born composer.

 

Sources

Coleridge-Taylor, Washington, Tortolano, Washington, Booker T., and Tortolano, William. Twenty-four Negro Melodies. Da Capo Press Edition / New Introduction by William Tortolano. ed. Musicians Library (Boston, Mass.). New York: Da Capo, 1980.

Stephen Banfield and Jeremy Dibble. “Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed November 16, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/06083.