Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Celebration Features Sacred Choral Music and Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast

PHOTO: courtesy of Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena | South Pasadena News | Composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Celebration, held in honor of the composer’s 147th birthday, will feature two special performances showcasing the Black-English composer’s sacred choral music, and his masterpiece Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. Curated and conducted by Artistic Director Dr. Zanaida Robles, “Sacred Choral Music of Coleridge-Taylor and Robles” will take place Friday, August 12 at 7 p.m.; “Music Sunday! Church Service featuring Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” will take place Sunday, August 14 at 10 a.m. Both events will be held at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena.

The “Sacred Choral Music of Coleridge-Taylor and Robles” program features a cross section of sacred works, including two settings of Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Colerdige-Taylor and Robles, and Robles’ Ecstatic Expectancy with percussionist Dave Tull, which blends classical choral music with rock improvisation.

“Music Sunday! Church Service featuring Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” includes music by Native American composers set alongside Coleridge-Taylor’s multi-cultural fusion of Native American legend, classic American poetry, and English late-Romantic music. The text for Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1885 poem, The Song of Hiawatha. While there is much to criticize about his blatant appropriation and flagrant alteration of several aspects of Native American culture, Longfellow made what he believed was a genuine attempt to honor indigenous heritage by writing his epic poem based on Henry Schoolcraft’s transcription of the orally transmitted stories told by Schoolcraft’s Ojibway wife, Jane. Despite its inaccuracies and problematic nature, Longfellow’s alluring yet misguided work helped to dramatically increase national awareness and preservation of Native American culture. The history of the Hiawatha legend and its storytellers is complex, and performing Coleridge-Taylor’s musical setting of a small portion of this story is an opportunity to clarify and correct the narrative by centering the stories, artistry, and experiences of indigenous Americans.

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PHOTO: courtesy of Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena | South Pasadena News | Artistic Director Dr. Zanaida Robles

“Researching the life and work of Coleridge-Taylor has been an eye-opening experience ever since I first discovered his music as an undergraduate student in vocal performance,” said Robles. “It is a privilege and joy to present this celebration, which is part of a larger commitment to expand the choral canon and uplift underrepresented voices, including Indigienous artists and composers.”

The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Celebration is the first of several stops on the road to Carnegie Hall, where the Harvard-Westlake Choirs and Orchestra from Southern California will perform Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, conducted by Robles, and presented by National Concerts. The work was last performed at Carnegie Hall in 1915 as part of a “Concert of Negro Music” conducted by renowned conductor/composer J. Rosamund Johnson (the same who composed “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”).

Coleridge-Taylor’s most celebrated work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast is a shining example of his command of musical form, texture, harmony, and orchestration, which resulted in overnight fame and respect among colleagues that few men of color could have hoped to enjoy in the early twentieth century. Because of his incredible success in a field dominated by white males at a time when racism in America was peaking, Coleridge-Taylor’s influence on Black artists and intellectuals was powerful and far-reaching. It is regrettable that such a monumental work declined into virtual obscurity after Coleridge-Taylor’s death at the young age of 37 in 1912. But these performances shine light on this important work by a composer who still inspires the American musical community, just as he did a century ago.

Tickets available here for the Sacred Choral evening and the Music Sunday performance is free. Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church – 301 N Orange Grove Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91103.