Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Four Novelettes

Notes by Whitney Slaten, Assistant Professor of Music, Bard College

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor honored his pan-African heritage with ever-mellifluous compositions that increasingly embraced syncopation. African American elites of the Gilded Age cherished him. The chance to be among them was significant, as Coleridge-Taylor’s father was a descendant of enslaved African Americans who fought in the American Revolution. These Black Loyalists fought George Washington’s army in exchange for manumission and land ownership, primarily in Nova Scotia or Sierra Leone. Samuel’s father—Daniel Taylor, born in 1849 in Freetown, Sierra Leone—moved to England, where he became a physician. Samuel’s mother—Alice Marten of Castle Place, Dover—raised him in Croydon, as his father returned to Africa.

In 1890, Coleridge-Taylor matriculated at the Royal College of Music in London, studying composition with Charles Villiers Stanford. Sir Edward Elgar encouraged Coleridge-Taylor, and a friendship with the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar marked a turn in the composer’s life. Dunbar revealed for him the many ways to explore the beauty of his father’s race. Coleridge-Taylor attended the first Pan-African Congress in London in 1900, where he met noteworthy African Americans, including W. E. B. DuBois. In 1904, The Coleridge-Taylor Society invited him to Washington, D.C., to conduct his Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898). There, he met Theodore Roosevelt, and this initiated the first of three tours of the United States. These experiences encouraged him to emphasize musical sounds that would signal regard for his people. Rhythm—too frequently conjuring stereotypes of blackness—was one musical element that Coleridge-Taylor engaged with greater intentionality.

Four Novelettes, Op. 52, for string orchestra, tambourine, and triangle premiered in 1902 at the Croydon Conservatoire. Though Coleridge-Taylor has been called the “Black Mahler,” there are more apt musical analogies. One writer encounters in Four Novelettes a continuation of the “stylistic tradition of [Niels] Gade and Dvořák,” adding that it “excels in a great variety of motifs.” Another hears “touches of Brahms and the blues.” Similarly, one could listen to the dotted rhythms that introduce the first movement and find echoes of Handel, who used them to pronounce the regality in his oratorio Messiah. Coleridge-Taylor may have used them to foreground the mark of older and dignified musical expressions of time and the legacy of a noble people, out of the silence.

AUDIO FLASHBACK: Penderecki’s Double Concerto

Our second Audio Flashback today is the 2012 Double Concerto of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who was born 87 years ago yesterday and passed away this past March. We performed the work in December 2017 with conductor JoAnn Falletta and two of her colleagues from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra: violist Dennis Kim and cellist Roman Mekinulov. You can read the concert notes by clicking here.

Copland’s Lincoln Portrait

Notes by TŌN flutist Matthew Ross

The Commission
In 1942, conductor Andre Kostelanetz commissioned a “gallery of musical portraits” from three of the most preeminent American composers of the time. He requested works that reflect “the qualities of courage, dignity, strength, simplicity, and humor which are so characteristic of the American people.” Along with works by Virgil Thomson (depicting Fiorello H. La Guardia and Dorothy Parker) and Jerome Kern (Mark Twain), Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was a result of this commission. The piece was premiered to rave reviews.

Copland’s Instructions
In writing Lincoln Portrait, Copland noticed parallels between his present-day and that of Lincoln in the sense of the emergence of a nation. Both were dealing with the devastation of war and the search for identity that inevitably comes with it. Copland chose to use original text to frame Lincoln’s own words, extracting from an 1862 State of the Union Address, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, and the Gettysburg Address. He includes a note for the speaker on the first page of the score, discouraging the use of “undue emphasis in the delivery of Lincoln’s words,” and says that they are to be read “simply and directly, without a trace of exaggerated sentiment.” The focus needs to be on the complete “sincerity of manner” and not on acting ability. Copland recognized that Lincoln’s poignant words held all the dramatic implication necessary for the affect to be felt by the audience.

Copland’s Americana Style
Lincoln Portrait is a prime example of Copland’s distinct Americana style. He first started developing his idea of the “American sound” after hearing the Library of Congress’ newly released recordings of American folk music in 1936. Most of these recordings were extremely simplistic, using only a guitar or banjo to accompany a solo voice. Copland’s first explicit reflection of these recordings is Billy the Kid, a ballet written in 1938. Lincoln Portrait employs all of the same musical devices, most notably his frequent use of the intervals of a fourth and fifth (like the tuning of guitar and banjo strings) and his inclusion of folk song. In the case of Lincoln Portrait, he chose to include the ballad “On Springfield Mountain” and Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races.” Copland hoped these musical quotes would adequately represent the gentleness and simplicity of Lincoln’s personality.

Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral

Notes by composer Jennifer Higdon

Blue . . . like the sky. Where all possibilities soar. Cathedrals . . . a place of thought, growth, spiritual expression . . . serving as a symbolic doorway into and out of this world.

Cathedrals represent a place of beginnings, endings, solitude, fellowship, contemplation, knowledge and growth. These were my thoughts when The Curtis Institute of Music commissioned me to write a work to commemorate its 75th anniversary. Curtis is a house of knowledge—a place to reach towards that beautiful expression of the soul which comes through music. Coming to the writing of this piece at a unique juncture in my life, I found myself pondering the question of what makes a life. The recent loss of my younger brother, Andrew Blue, made me reflect on the amazing journeys that we all make, especially at a place like Curtis, where the pursuit of “the singing soul” is what music and life are all about. This piece represents the expression of the individual and the whole of the group . . . our journeys and the places our souls carry us.

jennifer higdon
Commissioned by The Curtis Institute of Music
Premiered May 1, 2000
by The Curtis Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano, conducting
Academy of Music
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania