Like Mozart, Mendelssohn, Bizet, Bellini, and many other artists, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor didn’t live beyond his 30s, dying at age 37, just a couple of months after the American premiere of his Violin Concerto (and several months before its British premiere). The son of a British mother and a father who later returned to his native Africa after studying medicine in London, young Samuel was fortunate to have an extended family who recognized his musical gifts early on. 

Coleridge-Taylor's career took off after graduation from the Royal College of Music. His Hiawatha Trilogy was extremely successful, and he was also active as a professor, adjudicator, and conductor. His fame extended to the US, where he was even invited to Theodore Roosevelt’s White House in 1904.He began developing his interest in his African heritage, using traditional African music as an inspiration for his classical works, stating  “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk music, Dvorak for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro Melodies.”  

Coleridge-Taylor first conceived of his violin concerto along these lines, incorporating spirituals, but changed his mind and decided to compose original thematic material instead. The Concerto was his last major work, and was commissioned in 1910 by his friend, the violinist Maud Powell, who claimed it was “Taylor-made” for her. Maud Powell was a pioneering spirit in her own right who advocated for new music, women composers, and composers of color. The June 1912 American premiere almost didn’t happen as the score and orchestral parts had to be reconstructed as they were lost en route (not with the Titanic as legend has it!)  The return journey for the British premiere at the 1912 Proms didn’t fare much better, as the parts were sent to the wrong address, not to mention that the composer died of pneumonia 5 weeks before! It is said that on his deathbed he conducted an imaginary performance of the concerto. describes the concerto as “an effective, endearing work” ...noting its “bittersweet lyricism (try the gorgeous central Andante)” and the “many opportunities for solo display in both outer movements.” Violinist Njioma Grevious, who won last year’s Sphinx Concerto competition with this work, is also “Taylor-made” for this work. Having seen her in performance, she plays with remarkable ease and elegance. 

Unlike masterworks like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre or the Last Supper in Milan, or even the 17,000-year-old wall art in the caves of Lascaux, our ability to appreciate the full glory of a live performance of Beethoven’s Ninth is not restricted. There are no too short, timed sessions--no masses of tourists clicking away with smartphone cameras. We can enjoy the music in a variety of venues and performances with orchestras of all sizes. In fact, each year, since 1983, 10,000 singers gather in Osaka, Japan to perform the last movement of the symphony, the Ode to Joy—they even performed virtually during the pandemic!  

The enlightened words of Friedrich Schiller’s poem which Beethoven so powerfully set to music resonate with us 200 years later:  

Joy, bright spark of divinity 

...Thy magic power re-unites 

All that custom has divided 

All men become brothers, 

Under the sway of thy gentle wings.  

In 1985, the European Union adopted the Ode to Joy as its anthem: “In the universal language of music, this anthem expresses the European ideals of freedom, peace and solidarity.” (EU website). 

Frederick Stock, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s second music director, expressed the Ninth’s emotional power in a series of talks about Beethoven’s Symphonies: “[It] is dedicated to all Mankind. Embracing all phases of human emotion, monumental in scope and outline, colossal in its intellectual grasp and emotional eloquence, the Ninth stands today as the greatest of all symphonies.” 

In this time of division here and around the world, Beethoven’s humanistic message is more inspiring and healing than ever.  

NSO at Wolf Trap 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Violin Concerto 
Beethoven: Symphony No.9 

Ruth Reinhardt, conductor 

Njioma Grevious, violin 

Keely Futterer, soprano 
Gabrielle Beteag, mezzo-soprano 
Ricardo Garcia, tenor 
Blake Denson, baritone 

Cathedral Choral Society 
Steven Fox, music director 

Friday, July 12, 8PM

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