It is November 21, 1906, in the Metropolitan AME Church of Washington, D. C. Chorus member No. 51 of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society—a soprano—holds her music high, and, blending her voice with the voices of 106 other female chorus members, utters a plaintive, musical, “Ah!” And so the music begins.
At the conductor’s stand in front of her is a young English composer/conductor named Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who is in the United States for his second concert tour. Soloist Henry T. Burleigh (1866–1949), who would soon become America’s leading composer of classically-based arrangements of African-American spirituals, looks up, takes his cue from Coleridge-Taylor, and, letting his bright, deep baritone voice resonate (without vibrato) throughout the hall, sings the opening words: “A slaver in the broad lagoon...” The event is the first performance in America of Coleridge-Taylor’s "The Quadroon Girl," one of his Five Choral Ballads (1903–1905), musical settings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery (1842).
In “The Quadroon Girl,” Coleridge-Taylor treats the female chorus like a Greek chorus, allowing the singers to comment upon the poem’s action through repetition of this single, emotive syllable—Ah! What is being commented upon is one of Longfellow’s raciest poems, in which a “thoughtful” father sells his daughter into slavery, and the frightened, submissive girl is led away “by the hand” to become a slave trader’s “slave and paramour.”
In his book “Darkwater” (1920), W. E. B. Dubois (1868–1963) offers some insight into the murky business of “house servantry,” and the sale of American children into slavery:
"...With a harshness and indecency seldom paralleled in the civilized world white masters on the mainland sold their mulatto children, half-brothers and half-sisters, and their own wives in all but name, into life-slavery by the hundreds and thousands. They originated a special branch of slave-trading for this trade and the white aristocrats of Virginia and the Carolinas made more money by this business during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than in any other way."
This CD presents “The Quadroon Girl” newly orchestrated in the style of Coleridge- Taylor from the piano-vocal score used in this 1906 concert by SCTSC Member 51, a score that I found in October 2009 among the Andrew F. Hilyer Papers in the archives of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University in Washington, D. C. Howard University was founded by “a Maine man,” as W. E. B. Dubois called him. General Oliver O. Howard (1830–1909) attended North Yarmouth Academy and Bowdoin College, lost an arm at Fair Oaks, received the Medal of Honor, and, after the Civil War, served under President Andrew Johnson as commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau (1865–1872). The portrait of the old Mainer in his one-armed, bemedaled military jacket greets everyone who walks into Founders Library at Howard. It is Founders that contains the records of the SCTCS of Washington, as well as numerous original letters sent to the Hilyers by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and his wife, Jessie.
Mamie E. Hilyer, and her husband, Andrew, members of the African-American community of Washington, D. C., established the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society in November 1901. In 1903, they arranged Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's first appearance in the United States, and, in 1906, his second appearance. According to the constitution of SCTCS, “the object of this organization is the mutual improvement of its members in the higher branches of vocal music through the study and public presentation of such standard compositions as may be selected by the organization.” While the constitution required only “fifteen active members in good standing” to maintain functioning status, by the time “The Quadroon Girl” and “The Death of Minnehaha” were performed under Coleridge-Taylor’s baton in Washington in November 1906, there were 175 members participating as choristers.
To understand the importance of SCTSC in early 20th century America—indeed, to understand the historic influence in this country of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and his music—you have to imagine what it was like to live in Washington, D. C., one of the nation’s most racially segregated cities during the period. A hopeful and eager generation of African-Americans, born and raised by newly emancipated parents, was coming of age in the United States. These men and women were fully expecting to earn equal citizenship through hard study and diligent work. They found, however, a turn-of-the-century nation not fully prepared to change, still bearing the scars and resentments of the Civil War. Dubois called it “two worlds within and without the Veil.” Not a radical, Andrew F. Hilyer offered ways to counter “the resistance that has been in our path all the time” in his treatise, “An Analysis of American Racial Prejudice and How to Suppress It” (1892):
"What should we do...? Show success and prove that there is no reason for holding this prejudice against us. Ask our white friends to give us opportunities to help ourselves. Keep ourselves in touch with them, show appreciation for their friendship and be excelled by no class of American citizens."
A number of prominent African-Americans were inspired by Coleridge-Taylor’s successes in England, his first major accomplishment being his three-part Song of Hiawatha cantata (1897– 1900). The list reads like a who’s-who of early American Civil Rights leaders: Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), W. E. B. Dubois (1868–1973), James Weldon Johnson (1872–1938)—who died at a railway crossing in Wiscasset, Maine—and his brother, composer and jazz musician J. Rosamond Johnson. These literati sought contact with Coleridge- Taylor, either here or in England. Dunbar and Coleridge-Taylor gave a poetry-music recital together in 1897 in London. (Behind the connection between Dunbar and Coleridge-Taylor was a common interest in Longfellow. Eleanor Alexander writes about the poet Dunbar’s childhood: “extra pennies were spent on books for Paul, especially short stories and plays by Mark Twain and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.”)
In a 1908 letter to Coleridge-Taylor, Andrew F. Hilyer expresses his appreciation for the profound influence Coleridge-Taylor's music exerted upon the nearly 200 members of SCTSC:
"When we are going to have a Hiawatha concert here for a least one month, we seem...lifted above the clouds of American color prejudice, and to live there wholly oblivious to its disadvantages."
About 100 years ago, Coleridge-Taylor’s influence in the United States was expanding due, in part, to the support of a wealthy Connecticut patron, Carl Stoeckel, whose father, Gustav, was a composer and professor of music at Yale University. Together with his wife, Ellen Battell, Stoeckel arranged for the Litchfield County Choral Union, a chorus of 450 singers centered in Norfolk, CT, to perform Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, The Death of Minnehaha, and other works at the Norfolk Festival in early June 1910, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Coleridge-Taylor, himself. In 1912, Coleridge-Taylor's Violin Concerto was premiered at Norfolk, as well as a short concert piece for violin, "Keep Me From Sinkin' Down" (available as a separate mp3 download by The Orchestra of The Longfellow Chorus). On this same concert was the American premiere of Coleridge-Taylor's cantata, "A Tale of Old Japan," an opera-like work showing the surprising influence of Puccini.
The music used in this recording of "The Death of Minnehaha," by The Longfellow Chorus and Orchestra, is photocopied from the 1910 New York Philharmonic Minnehaha parts. The pencil marks left 100 years ago by the musicians give insight not only to Coleridge-Taylor’s directions to the musicians, but to the personalities of the musicians themselves. German-born Fred Geib (1871–1950), for instance, became a bit of a legend in the tuba world. He was a Julliard professor, composer, principal tuba in the New York Philharmonic and at Radio City Music Hall, maker of the famed Geib tuba mouthpiece and—some claim—inventor of the five-valve tuba. He was inspired to sign his name in pencil on the final page of the tuba part used in this Longfellow Chorus recorded performance of The Death of Minnehaha: "Fred Geib June 2–1910 Norfolk, Conn. with the composer."
The musicians of the New York Philharmonic in 1910 knew a good conductor and a good composer when they saw one: at the time Coleridge-Taylor conducted them at Norfolk their principal conductor was Gustav Mahler. Thus, they named Coleridge-Taylor the “African Mahler,” a phrase now widely in use, though the context is not fully explained. For posterity, Carl Stoeckel left a typewritten personal recollection of Coleridge-Taylor, now part of the Stoeckel Family Papers at Yale’s Irving S. Gilmore Music Library:
"We were fascinated by [the] strangely weird cast of melody and brilliant, sumptuous orchestration [of Hiawatha].... Africa is knocking at the door of the abode of the princess of art in the person of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.... The beauty and pathos of [Longfellow’s] words in the 'Death of Minnehaha' are fully equaled by Mr. Taylor’s music.... At the first rehearsal...he leaned over from the conductor’s stand...mopped his brow and remarked, 'This is a wonderful orchestra. I have never directed anything like it. They can read anything beautifully at first sight....' In a conversation concerning contemporary music he spoke highly of Dvorak and Grieg.... He also remarked several times, 'If I had retained my rights in the Hiawatha music, I would have been a rich man. I only received a small sum for it....' One of his personal attributes was his graceful attitude when on the conductor’s stand. This has been commented upon by the great numbers of persons who saw him conduct here. It was quite different to see him on the conductor’s stand where he presented all the appearance of a well restrained warhorse panting for the fray, as when he stood up to give his first recital here when he almost shrank within himself...but as soon as he had anything to do with music, he was all himself."
As noted, there was something about Longfellow's poetry that inspired Coleridge-Taylor. In his lifetime, he composed at least 21 works—songs, choruses and instrumental pieces—based on Longfellow’s poetry. One of his first student compositions, at age 19, was a setting of The Arrow and the Song; his last work, Opus 82, No.2, was the Minnehaha Ballet, for piano and monologue. The development of Coleridge-Taylor’s skill as a composer can be observed in Southern Love Songs, Opus 12, for tenor (they have nothing to do with the American South). These are immature works Arthur Sullivan could have written. (It is interesting to note that Coleridge-Taylor was about the same age as Longfellow was when Longfellow translated She Is a Maid of Artless Grace—both young men in their early twenties, both looking for brides.) The Quadroon Girl, opus 54, No. 4, shows the hand of a skilled, confident composer who was beginning to become aware of African-American melody and harmony.
In this CD, The Longfellow Chorus broke with its tradition of the exclusive performance of settings of Longfellow’s poetry by performing and recording The Stars, Coleridge-Taylor’s setting of a poem by 16-year-old Kathleen Easmon (Simango), (1892–1924), who was a member of London’s West African community and a neighbor of the Coleridge-Taylors. My interest in this music stems from my discovery in October 2009 of the manuscript of this song in Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. Further research led me to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, which houses a rare edition of Coleridge-Taylor’s Five Fairy Ballads, Opus 54, which is the published collection of five settings of Easmon poems that contains “The Stars.” Later, I found the strings parts, though not the full orchestra parts, at the Library of Congress. In this performance, I created a string orchestra and solo voice version by amending the string parts with a few missing harmonies.
Ahovi Kponou, a descendent of Kathleen Easmon Simango, contributes the following biographical sketch of Ms. Simango:
Kathleen Easmon Simango was born in 1892, in the former British Colony of the Gold Coast, now Ghana, to Dr. John Farrell Easmon and Annette Easmon. Her father died after an accident in Accra in 1899, after which, she went to England with her mother and older brother, Charles, where her mother had several sisters. They stopped in Freetown, Sierra Leone, her mother’s birthplace, for about six months on the way to England. She attended Notting Hill School for Girls, and then studied at the Royal College of Art in London, where her interest was in design. She graduated in 1914, with the A.R.C.A. diploma, becoming the first African to obtain a diploma from that institution.
Kathleen had other interests outside of school. She composed songs, five of which were set to music by the renowned British music composer (of Sierra Leone ancestry) Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who was a family friend. They were published in 1910, when Kathleen was only eighteen. A London newspaper article referred to her as a West African musician, and she appeared as a dancer in an Indian opera staged at the London Opera House.
Kathleen and her mother subsequently travelled to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to join her older brother, Charles, who had taken an appointment as a doctor in the Medical Service there. In Freetown, she assisted her aunt, Adelaide Casely-Hayford, with operating a vocational school for girls. In 1920, Kathleen and her aunt set sail for the U.S., via Liverpool, England, to embark on a speaking tour to raise funds to support the school. In June 1922, she married Columbus Kamba Simango, from Portuguese East Africa. He was a graduate of Columbia University. Paul Robeson sang at the wedding, which took place in Wilton, Connecticut.
There are several newspaper accounts of her appearances with her aunt. Audiences were astonished to see these two highly intelligent and well-educated women from Africa. Later, there were theatrical performances with her husband. They decided to return to East Africa and start a school similar to the one her aunt had started in Sierra Leone. They travelled to Lisbon, Portugal via England in 1923. There, she was to immerse herself in Portuguese, the official language in Kamba’s homeland.
A medical emergency made it necessary to return to England, alone. In July 1924, she died at London’s Charing Cross Hospital, aged thirty-two years.
[Album notes by Charles Kaufmann]