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Review: Catalyst Quartet Uncovers Chamber Music By Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor
Composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor

“You’ve done it, me boy!”

In 1906 these words were given to composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor by his teacher Charles Villiers Stanford. Stanford had challenged Coleridge-Taylor to best the late Johannes Brahms’s clarinet quintet with a work of his own in that instrumentation without showing the influence of the earlier piece. While the shadow of Antonin Dvorak is present in the thematic character, Coleridge-Taylor indeed had his own unique gift for chamber music.

Coleridge-Taylor was not born into slavery, though he was a descendant of freed slaves. Even with that difference in experience, his music was an inspiration to African Americans. As Booker T. Washington described it, Coleridge-Taylor’s career showed the possibility for a Black man “under a favorable environment.” But Coleridge-Taylor’s experience at the Royal College of Music was not entirely smooth. A sheltered home life had left the young man quite shy, and unprepared for name calling he would receive for his skin color. 

Even late into his career reviews referred to him as “boyish” and remarked on the texture of his hair. As these microaggressions continued to compound in the press, references to anti-imperialism in Coleridge-Taylor’s music also appeared. While Victorian England’s sentiment for their empire reached new heights, Coleridge-Taylor’s The Song of Hiawatha, with its dignified portrayal of Native Americans and theme based on Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen cut through the exoticism in its source material to find acclaim with English audiences. 

Read more from NPR’s Code Switch

The composer was a bit of a sensation in his time. As a young man, he often shared the spotlight with his fellow Royal College of Music students Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Edward Elgar described Coleridge-Taylor as “the cleverest of the young men” when he commissioned Coleridge-Taylor for the Three Choirs Festival. This spotlight led to the formation of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society by a group of Black singers in Washington, DC. 

As the support of the American choral society grew, so did a network of fellow Black artists and musicians in England and the USA. The more Coleridge-Taylor’s music was advanced, the more doors were open for other composers and performers like Harry T. Burleigh, Clarence Cameron White, and R. Nathaniel Dett. Likewise, the work of these fellow composers, alongside hearing a performance in England by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, influenced Coleridge-Taylor, who had grown up away from Negro spirituals. 

The support system that was built allowed each musician to take their work to new heights. Coleridge-Taylor’s music was a mainstay on the programs of Cameron White, and Burleigh drew huge ovations performing as a soloist in Coleridge-Taylor’s oratorio Trilogy, based on the story of Hiawatha. Though a New York Times profile was a reminder that while the music was popular and loved, the press still struggled to not treat the composer as a curiosity.
“He is small, delicate featured, gentle, not at all the long- haired and eccentric musician”

Generations later, it’s another group that includes powerfully talented Black musicians who are bringing Coleridge-Taylor’s works to life. The Catalyst Quartet joined with pianist Stewart Goodyear and New York Philharmonic principal clarinetist Anthony McGill for the first of three collections of music by underrepresented composers. Vol. 1 of Uncovered features a Quintet for Piano and Strings, the opus 5 Fantasiestück, and the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings that Charles Stanford so enjoyed.

The clarinet quintet and the Fantasiestück were both premiered while the composer was still in school. Reviews in the Musical Times praised Coleridge-Taylor’s originality and ability for his age, and composers like Arthur Sullivan were loyal members of his audience. With their tuneful melodies and rich harmonic texture the works are eminently loveable, especially in the hands of Catalyst, Goodyear, and McGill.

The piano quartet makes for an exciting showpiece. The Fantasiestück allows for every member of the quartet to truly shine. But the real showstopper is the clarinet quintet - a work that was surely decades ahead of its time rhythmically and harmonically, but that is immediately engaging to the listener. As Stanford observed over a century ago  - the work remains a true original.

In order to celebrate the music of important composers from past generations those pieces need to be part of the canon - they have to be widely performed and recorded, with the utmost attention to quality. And that is the (so far well-achieved) goal of the Uncovered series: to bring these pieces, which were smash hits in their time, back to the public. Forthcoming releases will feature the music of Florence Price and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. After hearing the first volume, a listener is in agreement with the 1894 Musical Times, “We shall look forward to further work from Mr. Taylor with great interest.”

Uncovered, vol. 1 is available now on all major platforms, and you can hear it in the playlist on 90.5 WUOL.

Colleen is the Music Director and host for LPM Classical. Email Colleen at colleen@lpm.org.