How a small orchestra increased access to the music of a once-renowned black composer
Can a small orchestra working on a small budget make a global difference in the world of classical music?
An example might be the Holland Symphony Orchestra elevating a once-famous composition by 19th-century black composer and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
Not only did the orchestra introduce Coleridge-Taylor’s music to its small-town audience at a concert last fall, but it is now making the arrangement available to orchestras around the world.
“It’s wonderful to see an important work like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha Suite infuse orchestral programs,” said Simon Woods, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. “Johannes Müller Stosch and the Holland Symphony Orchestra are doing a great service in helping to make this music accessible to the realm of the orchestra.”
Disappeared out of sight
In the late 1800s, English-born Coleridge-Taylor created the music to highlight Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem about Native American characters, “The Song of Hiawatha.” His resulting fame was so great that President Teddy Roosevelt invited him to the White House on one of his three successful tours of the United States.
While his music was very popular in its time, it did not survive the centuries. With the exception of William Grant Still, few black composers are part of the canon of works performed by orchestras today.
“There are composers who have done this for whatever reason,” says Johannes Müller Stosch, Music Director and Conductor of HSO. “And I would say more composers of color haven’t. And so it’s great that those parts exist, and that we’re now highlighting all that repertoire that needs to be done.
He credits the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Movement with sparking interest in the classical music world by bringing diversity to programming. But for that to happen, those plays need to be listed in anthologies and the parts need to be available.
As a composer, Coleridge-Taylor “sought to tap into the tradition African music and integrate it into the classical tradition, which he considered Johannes Brahms to be done with Hungarian music and Antonin Dvorak with Bohemian music”, according to blackmozart.org.
Create a full score
The “Hiawatha Suite” is taken from one of Coleridge-Taylor’s greatest hits, a cantata entitled “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast”. He was also a conductor and created a recording of this suite using a piano score – a simplified score that looks like a piano part, with only occasional indications of which instrument is playing a part. specific, explains Müller Stosch.
The 1920 recording, available on YouTube, is so rough it’s hard to hear. Until last fall, it was the only available recording of the work.
When Müller Stosch programmed a work by Coleridge-Taylor at the 2021 Fall Concert, the parts had just become available due to expiring copyright restrictions. No complete score existed – only the condensed version for piano.
Lack of familiarity with this work has made the lack of a complete score a serious obstacle to interpretation.
Müller Stosch hired a former student at California State University-Long Beach, where he teaches at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music. The alumnus then produced a full score from the individual instrumental parts.
“This gigantic undertaking required a lot of dedication and a lot of work”, says Müller Stosch about the work carried out by Nate Thronerudcomposer and musician, who worked for film studios.
Now available to everyone
The university and HSO shared the costs. The score and individual parts were then made available online – free of charge – for all interested orchestras to use. The live recording made during the HSO concert was shared on YouTube, allowing conductors to view the score while listening to a corresponding recording.
HSO recently learned that the Boise Philharmonic wanted to perform the piece after conductor Eric Garcia found the HSO recording on Youtube.
The elevation of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s work is part of a larger effort started by HSO a few years ago when its artistic team began working to add music by underrepresented composers to concerts at the ‘orchestra.
“Removing these kinds of barriers is a big step toward making this literature more accessible for future programs,” says Kay Walvoord, HSO’s longtime CEO.
One of the criticisms of the symphonies is that the music they perform comes largely from a European pattern of symphonic history, including the works of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Tchaikovsky, to name a few- one.
As the HSO, one of the oldest music organizations in the Netherlands, pledges to be more diverse and inclusive, it explores why more music by non-white composers is not being performed and seeks ways to resolve the problem.
Bringing Coleridge-Taylor’s work to audiences today is a step toward that goal, Walvoord says.
Want to learn more about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s legacy, including why he didn’t reap the windfall of his greatest professional success? Listen to Johannes Müller Stosch and concert master Amanda Dykhouse discuss the life and legacy of the acclaimed composer in this pre-concert speech. The conversation begins at minute 10:25.