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Suite from the ballet Hiawatha

Each movement, it appears, was essentially based on an individual canto from Longfellow’s poem.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn, London, England, on August 15, 1875, and died in London on September 1, 1912. Using thematic elements from his earlier cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the composer sketched the Hiawatha ballet music in 1912, leaving it in piano score at the time of his death. This was published in 1919 as orchestrated by Percy Fletcher; the music, along with other music from the Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast cantata and its successors, was used in extravaganzas at the Royal Albert Hall in England throughout the 1920s.

The score of the Hiawatha ballet music calls for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (small gong, triangle, cymbals, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tambourine, tom-tom, bass drum), harp, and strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, and double basses). The suite is about 18 minutes long.

At his premature death in 1912, at the age of 37, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor should have been a wealthy man. As a young composer in 1898, he completed his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, a setting of words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha about the Ojibwe warrior. Flattered by the offer of the publisher, Novello, to publish the vocal score before the first performance, he accepted a flat fee, unaware that a contract of a royalty per copy would have earned him a much more considerable sum in the years that followed. Sometime later, after Coleridge-Taylor’s death, an angry and impatient Charles Villiers Stanford, his one-time teacher, wrote to The Times enquiring whether a royalty had been offered, to which Novello could only reply that the initial contract had been entirely legal and above board. What was then perceived as an injustice later led to the formation of the Performing Rights Society.

A prodigious student at the Royal College of Music in London (where he outshone his contemporaries Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst), Coleridge-Taylor first made his mark with his Clarinet Quintet in 1895. This work, influenced by Johannes Brahms but even more so by the works of Antonín Dvořák (whose music was at the time lionised in Britain), showed a real flair for form, thematic material, and instrumentation. Perhaps after the English premiere of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, From the New World, on June 21, 1894, in which the second movement was intended as a sketch for a cantata or opera based on Longfellow, the idea of setting Longfellow’s poem had been cemented in his mind. However, even before the choral conception, his passion for Longfellow’s poem had resulted in his Hiawathan Sketches, Op. 16, for violin and piano in 1897, miniatures based on three quotations from Longfellow’s text.

The cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was conducted by his teacher Stanford at the Royal College of Music in London on November 11, 1898, in the presence of Sir Arthur Sullivan, Hubert Parry, and Edward Elgar, who were all greatly impressed by the work. Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast became an instant success with choral societies and audiences across Britain, and it was soon a much-acclaimed work in the U.S. after the composer conducted it there on several occasions. Indeed, such was his fame in America that the composer was introduced to President Theodore Roosevelt during his visit in 1904. The success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast led to the composition of two further cantatas, The Death of Minnehaha (1899) and the Hiawatha’s Departure (1900). Though less appealing than the first cantata, they formed a larger trilogy, Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha, Op. 30, which was widely performed, even more so in the 1920s and 1930s when ambitious performances were organised at the Royal Albert Hall involving costumes, dancing, and scenery with real water fountains. The first of these was conducted by Coleridge-Taylor’s son, Hiawatha, on May 19, 1924, and attracted audiences in the thousands. Such was its popularity that further performances, over a two-week period, continued annually until the Second World War under the baton of Malcolm Sargent, one of the work’s keenest exponents.

Besides the choral trilogy, Coleridge-Taylor also composed an overture on the theme of Hiawatha, first given at the Norwich Festival on October 7, 1899. Although it was performed as a standalone piece, it was later used as a prelude to the three cantatas. But this was not the last work to be inspired by Longfellow’s poem. In 1912, the composer returned to it yet again, this time motivated by the idea of Hiawatha in the theater. That year he had met a young producer, T. C. Fairburn, who had the idea of dramatizing Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast at the Coliseum. The initiative ultimately came to nothing, but he did instead turn his attention to the prospect of a ballet based on the poem. There was the possibility that such a work might be performed at the Alhambra Theatre in London under the direction of Thomas Beecham, who had begun to establish his name as a conductor with the New Symphony Orchestra and Beecham Orchestra. This did not materialise either, but Coleridge-Taylor nevertheless produced a fair amount of music in piano score. As one of his last major projects before his untimely death on September 1, 1912, this composition was left unorchestrated; indeed, it is not entirely clear whether he even completely finished the work. The surviving music was, however, published by Hawkes in 1919 as a Suite from the Ballet Hiawatha and orchestrated by the composer and musical director of His Majesty’s Theatre, Percy Fletcher, who also orchestrated a further selection of pieces for the Minnehaha Suite in 1925. These two scores were subsequently used for the epic representations at the Royal Albert Hall.

The Suite from the Ballet Hiawatha consists of five movements in which familiar themes from the trilogy, reworked in a different guise, can be heard. Each movement, it appears, was essentially based on an individual canto from Longfellow’s poem. Cast in G major, “The Wooing,” from the eponymous Canto X, depicts Hiawatha’s introduction to Minnehaha from the Dacotah tribe, one with which Hiawatha’s own people had continually warred. The match was intended as a means of ending the tribal feud, but the union of the two turned out to be a genuine love-match, as portrayed in the seductive sounds of the muted strings in the opening moderato, the more sedate dance in 3/4, and the passionate climax. A more lively Scherzo in A minor constitutes “The Marriage Feast” (from Canto XI), which is strikingly contrasted with the short inner Trio in A-flat, marked by the composer as poco pomposo, material which briefly returns at the end before the movement concludes in C major.

Coleridge-Taylor is less specific about the nature of the third movement, which is made up of two miniatures: “Bird Scene” and “Conjurer’s Dance,” probably referring to cantos XVI and XVII, which tell of the handsome Yenadizze, Pau-Pukke-Keewis, who brought trouble to Hiawatha’s village, and how, as the birds sang gaily, he took pleasure in his disruption and the taunting of Hiawatha’s people, a sentiment evident in the more boisterous “Conjurer’s Dance” in E-flat major. Pau-Pukke-Keewis, notwithstanding his change of appearance into a bird, was eventually hunted down by Hiawatha and turned forever into an eagle. In Canto XXI of Longfellow’s poem, Hiawatha tells of his vision and how he had beheld “the coming of the westward marches of the unknown, crowded nations,” the coming of the new religion of Christianity, and the scattering of his own nation. It is surely this which is depicted in the more foreboding tone of “The Departure” in G minor, the memory of his own wedding feast and a solemn episode marked Andante religioso. Accepting his fate, Hiawatha departs from his people to go west, but with the promise that, one day, he would return. It is this somber statement in the last of Longfellow’s cantos—“I am going, O my people/On a long and distant journey;/Many moons and many winters/Will have come, and will have vanished/Ere I come again to see you”—which is represented by the final fortissimo orchestral statement in C major of “Reunion” as Hiawatha, in his canoe, rows into the sunset.

Jeremy Dibble

Jeremy Dibble is a professor of musicology at Durham University in England. His research specialties are British and Irish music of the 19th and 20th centuries; he is the author of monographs on C. Hubert H. Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, John Stainer, Michele Esposito, and Hamilton Harty. His most recent books include British Musical Criticism 1850-1950 and a study of the music of Frederick Delius.