Showing posts with label Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Show all posts

Friday, December 06, 2013

In memoriam Mandela: a recording that couldn't have been made without him

We were fortunate to have such a figure as Nelson Mandela in the world at all. Today everyone on social media seems to have found a pertinent quote from him - each one chosen in a way that is extremely personal to the chooser. Each one is an inspiration in itself. (Tomorrow the Indy will publish a special souvenir edition in his memory, btw.)

Instead of a quote, here's an incident.

Ten years ago the violinist Philippe Graffin went to Johannesburg to record the gorgeous violin concerto by Samuel Coleridge Taylor with the Johannesburg Philharmonic. It was an event that could never have existed without Nelson Mandela: a mixed-race South African organisation, performing a work by a composer half British, half African. This is the end of the first movement and the whole of the second movement. (Get the whole recording.) And here - from the first month of JDCMB - is why this means such a lot to me, then and now.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

SAMUEL COLERIDGE-TAYLOR died on 1 September 1912, aged 37

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's short life ended exactly a century ago today. Half British, half African (his father was a doctor from Sierra Leone), he grew up in Croydon - and died there too, of pneumonia exacerbated by overwork and exhaustion. Having had no notion of how popular his oratorio Hiawatha would become, he'd accepted a small flat fee for its publication and saw no financial benefit from its hundreds of performances. His story helped to inspire the creation of the PRS - but for him it was too late.

Had he lived, and emigrated to America, he might have become the international star he deserved to be - though there he was celebrated enough to be dubbed 'the black Mahler'. As things are, his fans still struggle to keep his memory alive.

Long-time JDCMB readers may remember this:

But slowly, bit by bit, the recognition is arriving. The British Library has an online gallery devoted to him, which you can view here. Charles Elford has written a touching, fictionalised account of SCT's life, entitled Black Mahler and aficionados may also be interested to track down the volume, available at various libraries, by the composer's daughter, Avril. Apart from this, there isn't a great deal of literature about him. He had a short life and spent most of it struggling for survival, fighting the prejudice that dogged his every move, and ultimately working himself to death. His story came to its tragic conclusion almost before it had a chance to begin.

NB [UPDATE]: I fear some readers have been confusing Samuel Coleridge-Taylor with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. While his parents may have named the British-African composer in honour of his eminent forerunner, this has nevertheless been a problem for a long time. So, just to clarify:

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE: 1772-1834. English poet, critic and philosopher, author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, amongst much else. (Fact: he attended, uh, Jesus College Cambridge, where he appears to have had a nervous breakdown.)

SAMUEL COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: 1875-1912. British-African composer, counting the cantata Hiawatha among his greatest achievements...see above... This one is our anniversary man today.

Now, ANOTHER UPDATE, Sunday 2 Sept, lunchtime: Hilary Burrage has more about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in The Huffington Post (thanks for alerting us to this in the Comments, Hilary!). Read it here.

Last but by no means least, here's an extract from a US documentary in the making, apparently due out next March.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Good morning

Woke up to find my name and Elgar's splashed all over the business section of today's Indy. Stephen King argues that poor old Edu should never have been on the £20 note at all and represents 'a peculiar celebration of mediocrity'. I got very excited for a second, thinking a world-famous thriller writer was reading my work; but no, this Stephen King is head of economics for HSBC. He says that Elgar would never have got onto a banknote at all if Mozart, Beethoven or Bach had been British. He accuses all British composers of being second-rate, with the exception of Lennon & McCartney.

He's right in that we've had a handful of worthwhile composers, but never anybody to touch the top-notch greats (I still think Elgar's concertos are top-notch, but I take his point). The question is: if Elgar's mediocre but the best we have (King doesn't appear to mention Britten, let alone Orlando Gibbons), why should that be? I've been thinking this over for the last three hours and have a number of ideas on the subject, but after drafting a lengthy post at least five times I reckon they require a book, not a blog, and would upset an awful lot of probably blameless people. Come on, folks: your ideas, please!

By the way, I wouldn't dream of trying to write about economics, though I deeply regret having missed director Adam Curtis's new series The Trap so far.

UPDATE, 5pm: Blimey, guv'nor, my Elgar story has made it to Italy - Operachic found it in Milan's Corriere della Sera... Mille grazie, amica! [sorry, my Italian is hopeless...]

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

well done

DJ Mills is right: it's Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, in an article written in 1911, the year before his untimely death.

I liked Steve's suggestion of Prince Charles, though! I find it intriguing that, apart from the gently archaic language, the sentiments SCT expresses here are seen as something that could still be said today, nearly a century later (albeit just by one relatively isolated part of the audience).

Must dash - am having an Indy Panic, results in paper (I hope) on Friday.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Who said this?

Who said this? Answer tomorrow. Suggestions welcome in the interim (no prize offered).

"...few recent compositions really move one - though many of them astonish. It seems as if the composers would wish to be classed with the flying man in his endeavours to 'go one better' than the last...much of the music of the period reminds one of the automobile and the airship. It is daring, clever, complex and utterly mechanical.

The question is - Should an imaginative Art follow such lines? Should it not rather come from the heart as well as the brain?

Of course, a fine technical equipment is a very desirable thing, and nothing of worth can be accomplished without it; but should 'What do you think of my cleverness?' be stamped so aggressively over nearly every score that we hear?

The lack of human passion in English music may be (personally I think is) merely transitory. It is being pushed aside only while the big technical Dreadnought is in its most engrossing stage of development. Soon the builders will have the time to love again - when the turmoil is hushed somewhat - to give the world a few tender and personal touches amidst the strife, which will 'make us feel again also'."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

William Wilberforce lives on

Oh, sod it, I've got a new mousemat & keyboard ridge thing, both with a gel support for sore wrists, and if I don't write this up now, I never will. So, let's hear it for Errollyn Wallen (above centre), whose new piece 'Mighty River' nearly brought down William Wilberforce's church on Clapham Common on Saturday night.

The work was commissioned for this very special concert (mentioned on JDCMB last week) commemorating the 200th anniversary of the act of parliament that resulted in the abolition of the slave trade. It opens with a horn solo based on 'Amazing Grace'; as the music progresses, it really is as if you're travelling down a wide, glowing river with a pulse of life entirely its own, observing flashes of detail and beauty and drama that pass by on the rich tapestry all around. The orchestration is luminous, the mood at once expansive and intimate, the influences perhaps more John Adamsy than we'd have expected so far from Errollyn; and the impact was huge. The Philharmonia seems thrilled with it and in a speech later on, their inimitable chief exec David Whelton promised that it'll have plenty more airings, which it should.

And so should the Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto, which Philippe played with immense beauty and conviction. The slow movement was applauded in its own right; as it progressed, I could just feel the buzz in the church while everyone asked each other 'Ever heard this thing before? No, nor me, but why not? It's incredible!'

Last but not least, conductor Martyn Brabbins led the whole audience in a new arrangement of 'Amazing Grace' by supertalented Philharmonia fiddler Julian Milone - and as it went down a treat at the end of the first half, we did it again at the end of the second. I was horrified when I saw it on the programme ('what, they want us to sing, are you kidding?!?!?') but soon found myself swept up in the atmosphere of fervour, celebration and sheer humanity. A marvellous, unforgettable evening.

Holy Trinity is a wonderful venue, without a doubt, and the collaboration of church and art is something that even a confirmed atheist/agnostic like me can applaud and encourage. But this programme should take place next somewhere three times the size - ideally the Royal Festival Hall - and as part of the mainstream season. Coleridge-Taylor (above left), having been half African and an idealistic black activist in his day, was a perfect choice for the evening, but the concerto is so wonderful that it should be part of the mainstream repertoire. Go hear it.

It's appalling to reflect that slavery still affects millions of people all over the world. Join the fight for freedom 1807-2007 here.

UPDATE, 1 MARCH, 10.20pm: Bob Morris writes to alert us to this article in the New Yorker about 'Amazing Grace', a new film about William Wilberforce starring Ioan Gruffud. A thought-provoking piece, recommended reading. Thanks, Bob!

Friday, March 19, 2004

Coleridge-Taylor and South Africa: a personal testament...

Written through a growing pile of tissues...My work doesn't often induce tears, but this is an exception.

Philippe Graffin's new CD landed on the doormat yesterday, fresh from Avie. As I mentioned before, it's the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto's world premiere recording plus its perfect companion piece, the Dvorak. Philippe is accompanied by the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Hankinson.

Accompanied by WHAT, you ask?

The JPO was founded in 2000 after the disbanding of the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. It represents a desperate struggle to keep classical music alive in South Africa at a time when the country is beset by vast and terrifying problems. Sheer determination on the part of the musicians seems to be behind this phoenix rising from the ashes of a cultural relativism from the state that is understandable but depressing. This is the JPO's first commercial recording. The booklet photos prove that the orchestra is racially mixed; their playing proves that they pull together towards one goal; and Coleridge-Taylor - racially mixed himself and with 'more talent in his little finger' than the rest of his composition class had in their entire bodies, according to his teacher, Stanford - is the perfect figure for this debut.

I got involved with this CD through a set of extraordinary coincidences. Back in August 2002, I was doing some freelance sub-editing for The Strad and on my desk landed an article about the history of the Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto, by the American president of the Maud Powell Society, Karen A. Shaffer. It was fascinating, but the editor felt it needed a little tweaking and some extra background. This was entrusted to me and I ended up taking it home to edit and research there. It was published in the November 2002 edition.

A year later, Philippe told me that he was about to record the concerto. That's funny, I said, I've still got an article about it by someone else on my computer, here it is by e-mail.... After another six months, I was thrilled to get a surprise call from Simon Foster asking me to write the booklet notes.

But it's only now that I've seen and heard the finished CD that the significance of this project has really hit me - and its significance for me personally.

My parents were both born in Johannesburg and left in the 1950s. They were both music-lovers, brought together by their passion for music and the lack of such enthusiasm in those around them. My mother once told me that she'd had the opportunity to come to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music and her father refused to let her go. They hated apartheid and also longed for the music, opera and ballet that was available to them in London. Later, when I was growing up, all my parents' friends in London were South African emigres too, many of them exiled for political affiliations, involvement with anti-apartheid campaigns or educational activities and consciousness-raising in the townships. My father, a neuropathologist, later told me he was an outside consultant in the Steve Biko inquest.

My father had studied at the University of the Witwatersrand - which happens to be where Philippe and the JPO made this recording. Dad refused to go back to South Africa for several decades; in his last years, however, after the fall of apartheid, he took to spending the winters in Cape Town. I spent two weeks there with him in 1996 when he was already terminally ill - a time that now provides treasured memories.

That visit was my first since childhood. I've always shied away from South Africa and all it represents for me and my family. A massive sense of guilt at my family background; a revulsion at the country that could invent and keep in place such a horrific system for so long; a hatred of the philistine outlook and lack of cultural appreciation; the introversion of so much of the Jewish community (even before I was 18 my grandfather was on at me about marrying a nice Jewish boy); the rift between my own interests and those of so many of my cousins, who no doubt think I'm barking mad. South Africa is a loaded issue.

So, when Philippe said to me last December, 'Don't you want to go to South Africa?' I could only say that I didn't. Yet any journalist with half a brain would have looked at this project and headed straight for Heathrow. As Philippe says in his introductory note, vast numbers of black children in South Africa are now learning the violin - he's seen this for himself - and he compares it to the ghettoes of Vilna and Warsaw where so many great violinists of the past originated. Many Jewish emigres from Lithuania went to South Africa; did they in some way bring passion for the violin with them and take it into the townships? Among those Lithuanian emigres were my father's grandparents...

This could have been a massive story: the concerto, the orchestra, the kids...and I didn't do it. Now I'm wondering whether anyone else will either. If not, it's tragic.

And yet, I find that I've ended up being a small part of a production that would have represented the fulfilment of my parents' dreams, had they lived to see it. In Johannesburg, where this CD will probably sell well, there are many people who remember them and will recognise our name. Can one dedicate booklet notes in a CD? If so - these are dedicated to the memory of my parents: Myra (1932-1994) and Leo (1928-1996).

That's why I've been having a good howl today.

Philippe - if you read this - thank you.