“I want to be nothing in the world except what I am – a musician.” (Discovering ‘Thelma’, Coleridge-Taylor’s only opera)

Catherine Carr

Catherine Carr

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s sole opera, Thelma (Op.72), was composed in 1907-09, but only in the past few years has it been given any serious consideration. Here Dr Catherine Carr recounts how she came to learn of the opera. She also shares some insights into the research she undertook to bring Thelma to life, and tells us about some of her many fascinating discoveries concerning this centrally important and hitherto neglected work….

My initial interest in the life and music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was sparked in the mid-1990’s whilst undertaking research for an entirely different project – the history and development of Jamaican reggae, with particular reference to the music of Bob Marley. Biographically separated by seventy years, Coleridge-Taylor’s name nonetheless appeared alongside Marley’s in many secondary sources, as black musicians.

The striking similarity, to me, lay in the early age at which they had both died (Marley was 36, Coleridge-Taylor 37), and I was intrigued to find out more about the music from the pen of one so young. I was also surprised, at that time, that aside from Hiawatha (with which his name was synonymous in every publication), there really seemed to be very little serious study of Coleridge-Taylor’s other works.

I embarked upon a PhD, and as I set about preparing, researching and writing, it became apparent that the main focus of nearly all other critical writings tended to concentrate principally on the African ethos and black issues of Coleridge-Taylor’s music, exposing a lacuna in the dearth of thorough investigation into the music itself.

Whilst acknowledging that it is, of course, vitally important not to disregard the African aspect of Coleridge-Taylor’s writing or personality, he is without doubt a fascinating figure in British history and music, and I felt that the significance of his worth as a composer was over and above such elements as colour, race, gender etc. As such, I had decided to devote the focus of my thesis to examining the musical craftsmanship, and to assessing the subtlety and artifice of Coleridge-Taylor as a composer aside from external features that can, in some ways, prove a distraction.

In doing this, I thus felt it proper to focus on those substantial works in his
output where the merits (and the flaws) of his craftsmanship were most conspicuous; whilst examining the substantial corpus of Coleridge-Taylor’s music in different genres – chamber works, choral works, and orchestral music – the glaring omission was the ‘missing’ opera Thelma, the work into which Coleridge-Taylor poured his hope, energy and ideals from 1907 to 1909, regarding it as his biggest and most ambitious achievement.

At this point, there was very little documentation about the opera, and it was obvious that any reassessment of Coleridge-Taylor would not be complete without more information about the fulcrum of his output. Tracking down Thelma, which was not only thought to have been lost but possibly even destroyed by the composer, thus formed a vital part of my research into Coleridge-Taylor’s music and life.

The starting point here was correspondence from a music director to Jessie, Coleridge-Taylor’s wife, concerning the opera and performing rights, should it ever be successfully produced. Since the letter was penned in 1913, after Coleridge-Taylor’s death, he had obviously not destroyed the work, yet it did not show up in any of the libraries where his manuscripts are deposited.

However, by searching in the relevant sources through every file of his music individually, I eventually located the opera, in 2003; the three Acts of both the full score and the short score were all filed separately, amongst other Coleridge-Taylor works in various genres, in the British Library, and it has now been given its own entry in the British Library catalogue.

It took some time, not least in deciphering some of Coleridge-Taylor’s handwriting (!), to make a typewritten copy of the full libretto, plot/synopsis of the story and list of dramatis personae; the libretto is probably by Coleridge –Taylor, and it is interesting that he chose something thoroughly European and closer to home, a Norwegian Nordic theme, rather than other topical subjects.

This ‘national’ element of Coleridge-Taylor’s libretto is further reinforced by the context of other Saxon operas from the 1880s onwards. There were several preceding models: the Carl Rosa Company had produced Frederick Corder’s opera Nordisa in 1887; Frederick Cowen’s Thorgrim (Joseph Bennett, after Icelandic saga Viglund the Fair) augmented the repertoire in 1890, the same year that Arthur Sullivan’s grand opera Ivanhoe was written for the opening of D’Oyly Carte’s second theatre, the ‘English opera house’ in Cambridge Circus, and in 1895 Cowen’s opera Harold, or The Norman Conquest (E. Malet) was premièred at Covent Garden.

Though unknown at the time, there was also Stanford’s unfinished Nordic opera, The Miner of Falun (1887 – 8); and, of course, Elgar’s Scenes from King Olaf, based on Longfellow’s poem, had brought the young composer from Worcester to the fore in 1896 and had attempted to associate English nationalism with its supposed Nordic origins.

Although Coleridge-Taylor originally considered naming his opera The Amulet, he later altered the title to Thelma and simultaneously changed the name of the main character of the work from Freda to Thelma.

A thorough investigation of the orchestral and the vocal manuscripts involved critical examination, analysis and discussion of: dramatis personae/mis-en-scène; soloists/generic types etc; general structural details of the opera as a whole and each act (detailed in separate tables highlighting the main dramatic foci, principal thematic ideas and individual numbers, characters and important tonal centres); stock-in-trade archetypal dramaturgical topoi such as ‘anagnorisis’ and ‘peripitaeia’, exotic elements such as magic and the supernatural, the devil, a love liaison, unrequited love, an obstacle to prevent or impede the course of true love, and a test or rite of passage; use of the Chorus; leading leitmotifs; stylistic details; key moments and arias; details of delivery, and use of the orchestra and its role. All of this confirmed Coleridge-Taylor’s ability to handle dramatic music in grand opera.

Coleridge-Taylor remained fascinated by writing dramatic music throughout his life – his interest in and love of Puccini’s stage works give a clue to his own dramatic sensibility. Drama certainly seems to have elicited a large amount of choral and instrumental music from him, but Thelma shows us a completely different side to Coleridge-Taylor, in which he unequivocally demonstrated the accomplished skill of not only providing ‘top drawer’ set pieces, but also the facility to juxtapose them with an assured ease and dexterity to create a cohesive musical narrative.

By using specific and distinct themes for various characters in Thelma, Coleridge-Taylor did not adopt Wagnerian methods per se; indeed, his concept of writing was more in the guise of late nineteenth-century Italian opera developed in Verdi’s late operas and the verismo of Puccini. However, features such as the interrelationships of thematic ideas used at major climaxes, interlocution between voices and orchestra, use of the chorus as a leitmotif threading its way through the opera, and on a more esoteric level, the deft use of key symbolism, give direction to the work; moreover, the association of keys with particular characters significantly contributes to the larger cohesion of the entire opera.

It is difficult to understand what constituted the ultimate refusal of the Carl Rosa Company to stage Thelma and the ‘insurmountable’ problems of its staging and mis-en-scène that were claimed, but whatever problems precipitated the shelving of the opera in Coleridge-Taylor’s lifetime, they most certainly do not apply to the quality of the music itself.

Immediately after submitting and receiving my PhD degree (Durham University) in 2005/2006, I made enquiries into getting Thelma produced and recorded, intending to try and secure a performance for the 100th anniversary of the opera’s completion, in 2009. My efforts to interest opera companies in this country failed, so I turned to the US and the contacts I had made during my research, unfortunately still to no avail. I am now delighted to hear that there are plans for it to be performed onstage for the centenary year of Coleridge-Taylor’s death.

Catherine Carr, Ph.D., June 2011

“I want to be nothing in the world except what I am – a musician.”
[Samuel  Coleridge-Taylor, quoted in Norwood News (7 Sept. 1912), 5.]

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2 Responses to “I want to be nothing in the world except what I am – a musician.” (Discovering ‘Thelma’, Coleridge-Taylor’s only opera)

  1. Robin McEwan says:

    Is there a catalogue of the complete works that gives the orchestration of the various smaller works and is there a source for the scores and parts? I have noticed that on the IMSLP page most or all of these works are present in piano reductions or reductions for violin and piano.

    • Hilary Burrage says:

      Thanks for the enquiry, Robin. We are in fact ourselves developing such a catalogue (please see ‘Works’ in header, above), but this is an on-going task, and we are currently trying very hard to secure funding to enable it to happen more speedily. There are at the moment no single reference places to check all pieces, their instrumentation and their availability.

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