The Song of Hiawatha: how the cantata trilogy made Samuel Coleridge-Taylor a household name

Performances of Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha cantatas regularly used to pack out the Royal Albert Hall. So what happened? Andrew Green tells the tale of a majestic but short-lived phenomenon

The Song of Hiawatha: the cantata trilogy by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

In 1898 the premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the first part of a vocal trilogy based on Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha, propelled the composer to international fame and respect. However as a penurious musician recently out of college, Coleridge-Taylor sold the copyrights of the Hiawatha trilogy to Novello for little more than £500 in total, not realising that the vocal score alone would sell some 140,000 copies before World War I. 

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‘I wish Hiawatha had made the family rich,’ the composer’s great-grandson, Paul Dashwood, tells me a century later. ‘But that’s far from the case. At the time it seemed best to have the money up-front.’

The cantata trilogy became a roaring success. The Royal Albert Hall was to house one of the great musical phenomena of the inter-war years: dramatised performances of The Song of Hiawatha which, as simply Hiawatha, pulled packed houses for two-week seasons… and made the name of the young conductor, Dr Malcolm Sargent. A host of leading British singers appeared, from tenor Parry Jones and baritone Harold Williams to sopranos Elsie Suddaby and Lilian Stiles-Allen. An authentic North American chief, Oskenonton, was a feathered fixture, interpolating tribal chants into the action.

It was a money-spinner for everyone involved, not least the cash-strapped Albert Hall Corporation and Royal Choral Society. Everyone, that is, except the Coleridge-Taylors – including the composer’s son, who was named Hiawatha after the figure in the piece, the Native American leader.

What is The Song of Hiawatha?

The Song of Hiawatha is a trilogy of cantatas by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, set to the lines of US poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It is a choral affair, with solo interjections from a select group of principals, Hiawatha chief among them.

The three cantatas are made up of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, The Death of Minnehaha and Hiawatha’s Departure and the music is direct, tuneful and winningly scored, one of Coleridge-Taylor’s achievements being to deflect attention from the verse’s rhythmic monotony. The tale had a magnetic attraction for audiences: Hiawatha marries Minnehaha amid feasting and dance; Minnehaha dies, prompting deep communal grief; Hiawatha heads for the Hereafter, warmed by the words of pale-face missionaries.

How famous was The Song of Hiawatha?

Tracing the lineage of this spectacular success must embrace the popularity of Longfellow’s poetry on both sides of the Atlantic from the mid-19th century on. For decades until the recent past, it was staple fare in British schools. Longfellow is honoured in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, and Coleridge-Taylor was one of a host of (largely forgotten) composers who rode the wave that Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha enjoyed, among them Delius – in his orchestral piece Hiawatha – and Dvorák, in the second and third movements of the New World Symphony.

To the British musical world, the colour of Coleridge-Taylor’s skin was neither here nor there as they embraced the Hiawatha cantatas the moment they appeared as concert works between 1898 and 1900. Elgar simply saw Coleridge-Taylor as ‘…the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men’ of the day. Hubert Parry reckoned the premiere of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was ‘one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history’, and performances of that installment of the trilogy circulated giddily round the Empire and beyond. Coleridge-Taylor was a hero to the black community in the States.

When was The Song of Hiawatha first performed at the Albert Hall?

It was performed at the Albert Hall on November 22nd, 1912. Alas, dying four days after collapsing at West Croydon railway station in the summer of 1912, Coleridge-Taylor didn’t live to enjoy the celebrity status and new opportunities the Albert Hall extravaganzas would have brought. But at least he had discussed the idea of a Hiawatha dramatisation with the man who brought it to fruition in 1924, promoter Thomas Fairbairn. Employed by a charity to stage an Albert Hall event, Fairbairn thought to ask the Royal Choral Society which was its most successful work at the box office. In its heyday, The Song of Hiawatha outshone even Handel’s Messiah.

The stat proved spot-on. In an interview, Fairbairn was even to claim there was interest in touring the production from not just the US but Budapest, Vienna and Berlin. It certainly reached Australia: there’s fascinating footage as proof. But plans for a Melbourne revival in the early 1950s were scuppered when Hiawatha Coleridge-Taylor demanded a large cut from the takings, doubtless still galled at Novello’s unwillingness to pay royalties. There was one last hurrah in London in 1953, Coronation year, when the production returned for a run in the Albert Hall, this time a joint venture involving various London choirs. Singer Marguerite Clifford recalls that ‘…for weeks beforehand, everywhere you went you’d see posters.’

The old magic worked its spell on her, yet the story ends in anti-climax. ‘The following year we were going to do it again, but it was cancelled at the last minute because of poor ticket sales. We were gutted. I suppose Hiawatha had become dated, and there was competition from musicals like Oklahoma.’

Malcolm Sargent attempted now and again to re-stoke Hiawatha hysteria, but critics were biting in their ‘past-its-sell-by-date’ ridicule. Performances of any sort have been spasmodic over the past half century, although the hit tenor number ‘Onaway! Awake, beloved!’ must have surfaced often enough.

Paul Dashwood reckons what has endured over the years is the misperception of his great-grandfather as a one-work composer. ‘Plenty else is worth hearing, but it gets overlooked because he’s known for Hiawatha.’

Read our reviews of the latest Coleridge-Taylor recordings

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