Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London, England, on August 15, 1875, and died in Croydon, south London, on September 1, 1912. As discussed in the program note, little is known about the genesis of Petite Suite de Concert, but the work-list in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians gives a date of 1911. These are the first Boston Symphony performances of Petite Suite de Concert, though the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra led by Charles Floyd has performed two movements from the suite on prior occasions.
The score of Petite Suite de Concert calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, triangle, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum), harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The suite is about 16 minutes long.
Though lamentably little-remembered today, in his time Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a transatlantic sensation fêted by the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt and the British royal family. Born to a Sierra Leonean father and an English mother, Coleridge-Taylor grew up a child of mixed-race descent in a fundamentally monochrome society, a circumstance that could easily have limited his future horizons during an age of “scientific racism.” Fortunately, his family was in a position to help cultivate his musical talents, and at 15, he enrolled at the recently founded Royal College of Music, where he studied composition under Charles Villiers Stanford, one of the leading lights of late-Victorian concert life. Though the prim Stanford enjoyed a decades-long career teaching the cream of Britain’s young composers, he always looked back on Coleridge-Taylor as one of his very best pupils. Indeed, Coleridge-Taylor was subject to occasional racial abuse while at the Royal College, and after one incident, Stanford reportedly told his charge that he had “more music in his little finger than [the offending student] did in the whole of his body.” Yet notwithstanding Stanford’s influence, Coleridge-Taylor’s real compositional idol was Antonín Dvořák, a frequent visitor to English shores in those years. Dvořák’s example is readily discernible in the subject matter for Coleridge-Taylor’s breakthrough work, his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898), written when he was just 22. The piece for which Coleridge-Taylor is best-known, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was an international triumph, as well as a fixture of English choral programming for years afterwards.
It was thanks to this success that Coleridge-Taylor was first invited to travel to the United States, where he was greeted as a bona fide cultural hero by members of the African American intelligentsia. Otherwise opposed in many of their views, author-educator Booker T. Washington and historian-civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois were in complete agreement about Coleridge-Taylor, seeing him as a trailblazer whose model, they hoped, would help facilitate racial uplift. Yet if much of their admiration could be traced to the fact that Coleridge-Taylor had managed to gain entrée into the historically white world of composition in the first place, they also applauded him for the ways that his identity as a member of the African diaspora sometimes informed his creative choices. In particular, a handful of his scores drew on African American spirituals, albeit within the context of what remains—not unlike in Dvořák—a discernably Austro-Germanic harmonic syntax. (Important influences in this regard were the pioneering Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, with whom Coleridge-Taylor collaborated as early as 1896, and Frederick Loudin, director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the famed ensemble that toured the globe performing antebellum spirituals.) Still, whether the vein of Pan-Africanist solidarity expressed in these works would have intensified as Coleridge-Taylor grew older remains an open question, for his star was cut short by his sudden, early death at 37. As Du Bois lamented, eulogizing his deceased friend, “In the annals of the future his name must always stand high, but with the priceless gift of years, who can say where it might not have stood.”
Coleridge-Taylor never saw any royalties for Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. Little foreseeing its runaway success, he signed the rights away while the ink was still wet. Deprived of what would have been a reliable income stream, Coleridge-Taylor was instead obliged to take on a variety of compositional “odd jobs” beginning in his late twenties. The Petite Suite de Concert may have been one of them. Comparatively little is known about its genesis, given that it became one of Coleridge-Taylor’s best-loved works following his death, especially in British “light music” circles. Some of its material was harvested from a discarded student score, The Clown and Columbine, which was based on a commedia dell’arte adaptation by Hans Christian Andersen. (The extent to which Coleridge-Taylor was aware of the deep-seated relationship between blackface minstrelsy and commedia dell’arte traditions is uncertain.) While the boisterous “Le Caprice de Nannette” offers a multiplicity of themes whose tumbling enthusiasm some have heard as evidence of Coleridge-Taylor’s enthusiasm for Robert Schumann, “Demande et réponse” (“Question and Answer”) instead places the spotlight firmly on its lyrical, soaring “big tune.” It was a “hit” in the years after its composer’s death, and in the words of one author, “many a front-parlour piano resounded to it.” After the pirouetting “Un Sonnet d’amour,” which ostensibly captures Pulcinella’s serenading of Columbine, comes the—seemingly—untroubled “La Tarantelle frétillante” (“The Wriggling Tarantella”). It may well correspond to a passage in Andersen’s tale when, following the death of his unattainable beloved, Pulcinella “had to be more boisterous and extravagant than ever; and he danced and capered, with despair in his heart.”
Matthew Mendez is a New Haven-based musicologist, critic, and annotator who was the 2014 Tanglewood Music Center Publications Fellow. He was the recipient of a 2016 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award for outstanding music journalism.
Music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor has been played in Boston Pops programs periodically between 1920 and 2019, including performances by the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra under Charles Floyd of “La Tarantelle frétillante” from Petite Suite de Concert in June and July 1998, and “La Caprice de Nannette” from Petite Suite de Concert with Floyd conducting in June 2015. The BSO under Wilhelm Gericke led tenor Ben Davies in “Onaway! Awake, Beloved,” from Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in May 1902 and April 1906, and Thomas Wilkins led the BSO in the suite from Coleridge-Taylor's planned ballet Hiawatha in October 2021 at Symphony Hall.