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Ballade for Orchestra Op. 33 (1898)
Program Notes by Jayce Keane

Ballade for Orchestra Op. 33 (1898)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)

[View the bottom of this page to listen to this selection as you enjoy the Program Notes]

Note of Interest: Despite Edward Elgar describing Samuel Coleridge-Taylor as “far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the younger men,” his music struggled to survive the years.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is among a number of composers whose music came perilously close to extinction. As a late 19th -century, underprivileged, black child from a broken home, he rose from humble beginnings to become one of the best-known British composers, and the first to win acclaim in the United States.

He was admired by Elgar, compared to Mahler, and celebrated in Britain—only to die young, poor, and destined to fade from the music world’s memory.

Born in London in 1875 to an African father, Daniel Taylor, a Creole doctor from Sierra Leone, and white British mother, Alice Martin, Coleridge-Taylor was named after the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His parents never married; his father returned to Sierra Leone before his birth.

Coleridge-Taylor’s mother remarried, and the boy grew up in a white, lower-middle-class family in Croydon. His maternal grandfather taught him to play the violin, quickly revealing a powerful talent. Despite racial bias, his gift as a violinist and singer in local churches attracted music patrons. He enrolled in the Royal College of Music at age 15, where he turned to composition. By age 21, he was already making a name for himself.

Elgar described Coleridge-Taylor as “far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the younger men,” and recommended him to the Three Choirs Festival 1896, a major European choral festival, which commissioned Coleridge-Taylor to write a new orchestral work for their 1898 concert series. The premiere of Ballade for orchestra, Op. 33, took place Nov. 11, 1898, when the 23-year-old composer’s youthful love song proved to be a big hit.

The Ballade opens with a splashy flourish, as the timpani, strings, and trilling flutes boldly come together in muscular unison, introducing a boastful theme in the woodwinds, and soon joined by the whole orchestra in a fierce, dramatic opening.

The work transitions to a second, gentler theme, a tender love song that is as wildly passionate and striking as the opening theme. Fluctuating between the two contrasting moods, Ballade culminates in a vigorous rendition of the love theme by the whole orchestra. Another return to the intrepid opening music leaves no doubt that the work deserves to return to the spotlight.

Attending the premiere, Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote, “Much impressed by the lad’s genius. He is a composer, not a music-maker. The music is fresh and original—he has melody and harmony in abundance, and his scoring is brilliant and full of colour—at times luscious, rich and sensual...”

Coleridge-Taylor’s second premiere took place only two months later, with Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the first of a trilogy of works. Like many, he was inspired by Longfellow’s 1855 poem, “The Song of Hiawatha” (even naming his son, Hiawatha). Enormously popular, Wedding Feast became one of the most-performed works for chorus and orchestra, rivaled only by Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

His exploration of his Creole and African heritage lead to comparisons to Brahms and Dvořák, who also incorporated folk music into their works.

Coleridge-Taylor became an international sensation and traveled to the United States three times, playing before President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. In Washington, D.C., a 200-voice African-American chorus was founded and named the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society. His love for the States caused him to consider moving here.

Tragically, Coleridge-Taylor was only 37 when he died in 1912 of pneumonia, brought on by overwork. He had already composed nearly 100 works. And even though his Wedding Feast sold hundreds of thousands of copies, he did not receive any remuneration aside from the initial amount of 15 guineas. His impoverished death caused musicians to create the Performing Rights Society in England.