The current issue of BBC Music Magazine features an article about the wild success, between the World Wars, of an annual Royal Albert Hall production of three cantatas about the Ojibwe legend of Hiawatha. The cantatas were based on The Song of Hiawatha, the famous Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem that had in turn been inspired in part by a photograph of Minnehaha Falls in what is now Minneapolis.
“As simply Hiawatha,” writes Andrew Green, the cantatas “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 Sudaby and Lilian Stiles-Allen. An authentic North American chief, Oskenonton, was a feathered fixture, interpolating tribal chants into the action.”
Green does not make much comment on the cultural dimensions of this spectacle—performers were painted dark with “horrible brown liquid makeup,” remembers one now-elderly participant—perhaps because little needs to be said. Hiawatha dramatizations were popular around the world; in Minnesota, residents of Pipestone staged an epic rendition of the legend from 1948 through 2008.
Adding an interesting dimension to the story of the British Hiawatha is the fact that its composer was a black man: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who died of pneumonia 100 years ago this year at the age of 37. Born to an English woman and a Sierra Leonean Creole man who went back to Africa not knowing he was leaving a son, Coleridge-Taylor was named in tribute to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Coleridge-Taylor was so enamored of the Hiawatha legend that he named his son Hiawatha Coleridge-Taylor. The Hiawatha cantatas were the composer’s greatest success, though they did not bring him riches: he sold the cantatas’ copyrights for about £500. On his gravestone is inscribed a quotation from one of the Hiawatha cantatas:
Too young to die
his great simplicity
his happy courage
in an alien world
made all that knew him
Image via Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation