The genesis of Coleridge-Taylor’s violin concerto is a story of two pioneering artists: the composer and his commissioner, Maud Powell. Powell became one of the first American violin virtuosos to gain international fame, and she did so decades before women in the U.S. even had the right to vote. She was also the first solo instrumentalist to record for Victor’s Red Seal Label. During her incomparable international career, Powell gave some of the earliest American performances of concerti by Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Bruch, Lalo, Saint-Saëns and Dvořák. She performed with composer-conductors Sibelius, Saint-Saëns and Mahler, and she was the dedicatee of works by Amy Beach and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. These are just a few examples of her artistic legacy, a legacy also built on advocacy for new music, women composers and composers of color.
Powell’s 1912 premiere of Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto in G minor was the culmination of a partnership that had begun years prior, when the two artists jointly premiered Coleridge-Taylor’s works for piano and violin. The concerto’s premier, however, almost didn’t take place – the orchestral parts were lost en route to the U.S. and required last-minute reconstruction. In a popular albeit errant story, the lost parts were said to go down with the Titanic. In fact, they were shipped on a different vessel. The more compelling story is that of the composer himself and the manner in which his concerto became a masterwork of singular character.
Coleridge-Taylor was the son of an English woman and a Creole man from Sierra Leone, his paternal ancestors being African-American slaves freed by the British at the end of the Revolutionary War. As a black composer of enormous popularity during a time of widespread racism, he was sometimes called the “African Mahler” – a phrase coined by white musicians in New York. International recognition of Coleridge-Taylor’s work began in England, most notably following the 1898 premier of his cantata, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. The composer solidified his American standing in a 1904 tour of the States – the first of three – during which he conducted the Marine Band and the Coleridge-Taylor Society Chorus and was invited to visit Theodor Roosevelt in the White House.
In his brief 37 years of life, Coleridge-Taylor produced a large and diverse body of instrumental, vocal, orchestral and chamber works. Regarding his “24 Negro Melodies” for piano, Coleridge-Taylor said “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk music, Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro Melodies.” These words are probably those most often quoted in program notes describing his work. Yet in writing and re-writing the Violin Concerto in G minor Coleridge-Taylor demonstrated that the orchestration of “Negro Melodies” is too narrow a lens through which to view his artistry.
When Powell and Coleridge-Taylor discussed the idea for a concerto in 1910, the composer set off to write a work based on African American spirituals. Yet he was dissatisfied with the complete first draft. According to Powell, he requested that she throw her copy “into the fire…saying that he had written an entirely new and original work, all the melodies being his own, and that it was a hundred times better than the first composition.” Therein was born the concerto performed today. Tragically, Coleridge-Taylor was unable to attend its premiere and died just three months later of pneumonia. Still, in re-conceiving the concerto and reconstructing its orchestral parts, Coleridge-Taylor gave us one of the finest works of the genre. The concerto sings rhapsodically with folk-inspired but altogether original tunes, syncopated dances, far-reaching and seemingly inexhaustible lyrical melodies, complex and unexpectedly shifting harmonies, and a cyclical structure that masters 19th-century formal innovations within a sound world that anticipates European and American music of the mid 20th.
The first movement bursts immediately into song. The bold lyricism of this opening theme is made more remarkable by its boldness of orchestration and complexity of character. With nearly every instrument in the orchestra playing, the theme is at once a solemn march and a soulful song, and it very nearly gives way to a joyful dance. The solo violin’s subsequent iteration of the theme is naturally a more intimate sound, but its untethered virtuosity is playfulness and rhapsodic. This tension between solemnity and play is thrown into sharper contrast when the soloist introduces a jaunty dance in A major. Coloristically speaking, A major is about as far as you can get from G minor, where the movement began.
The inexhaustible energy of the first movement is relieved by the still, sublime sweetness of the second. Its nocturnal song is sung first by muted strings then passed to the solo violin, drawing a seemingly endless phrase. Playing out over a full two minutes, the patient craftsmanship of this theme alone sets Coleridge-Taylor’s concerto among the greats. Thereafter, the nocturne takes flight with a highly decorative theme in the solo violin. As in the first movement, contrasting characters make for captivating narrative.
The third movement is a rhapsodic dance that also evokes the great scherzos of Beethoven’s and Dvořák’s ninth symphonies. Like the first and second movement, it creates drama through contrast. In this case it is the shear rhythmic complexity of a syncopated dance – and the solo violin’s virtuosic embellishment – contrasted with the cinematic lyricism of the melody that follows. As in the first movement, the lyrical theme is first presented by the full forces of the orchestra and then more intimately by the solo violin – another layer of contrast. The capstone of this theatrical concerto is coda in two parts. First is a transfiguration of the dance with which the third movement began. The quick, complex rhythms of that theme have been stretched out and simplified, transforming a boisterous dance into a triumphant march. Yet victory is not the end-point. Instead, triumphant G major gives way to the solemnity of G minor and the soulful march with which the first movement began.
In a way, this concerto is eminently classical. Themes of contrasting key and character are the core rhetoric of 18th and 19th-century symphonism. Yet Coleridge-Taylor’s highly original themes, clothed in ubiquitous rubato, chromaticism and harmonies evocative of American jazz and French impressionism, defy any singular heritage. His concerto must be performed more often. The world is far less beautiful without it.