Jonathan Butcher writes:
Up until 1900 Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (born in 1875) had had little to do with composing for the theatre. His main body of work was choral and orchestral and, of course, his most famous opus, and the one that catapulted him to fame more or less overnight, was his major oratorio, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, to words by Longfellow, a poem that Coleridge-Taylor had long admired. Sadly, although this was performed all over the world and for two weeks every summer for a good many years at the Royal Albert Hall (with its companion pieces The Death of Minnehaha and Hiawatha’s Departure), he made little or no money out of the work, because he sold it outright to Novello & Co. Ltd. – something he was to regret bitterly.
The great and revered actor/manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree engaged SC-T to write incidental music for one of his productions in 1900 – Herod, a play by Stephen Phillips. This happy association was to continue until SC-T’s untimely death in 1912 at the age of 37. His involvement with the theatre, with all its colourful characters, magic and intrigue, may well have been the very spark Coleridge-Taylor needed to spur him on to write his only full length opera, as, between 1907 and 1909, he was actively engaged in composing what we now believe he would have called, Thelma.
‘Thelma’, or ‘The Amulet’?
Had he lived longer Samuel may well have changed the title to The Amulet, an early consideration, but that can only be speculation. He may even have decided to incorporate it as an alternative title, in the way that Gilbert and Sullivan did with their operettas. The manuscript vocal score refers to its leading lady throughout as Freda and, at that stage in the work’s composition, SC-T may well have chosen the name to avoid any confusion with the famous novel, Thelma, by Marie Corelli, but when he got round to scoring the work, he only managed to write his libretto in the first few pages of the full score, probably due to lack of time. In many places, however, in the margins of the full score, our leading lady is referred to as Thelma.
Is this proof enough we say? Well no, not really, but in 1910 the New London Orchestra, under Landon Ronald, gave a performance of the Prelude to Thelma. So, my feeling is that this performance of the Prelude was a good opportunity to publicise the work and, in which case, why advertise it with an incorrect title? There is much speculation here and it will clearly continue. Some say that Thelma is a better word to sing than Freda – after all SC-T’s wife was a singer so he would have received pretty sound advice – or that Freda is a better title for a Nordic Saga, being a Scandinavian name, although SC-T did not spell in that way (Frida). The one thing that surely must be clear is the fact that had the opera reached the stage during the composer’s lifetime, a final decision about its title and any other musical or theatrical inconsistencies or errors would have been ironed out. This is standard practice with a new work.
A question of libretto
So why didn’t Thelma reach the stage and why have we had to wait so long for this to happen? In short – in C-T’s lifetime it was the fault of the work’s libretto and a libretto that he appears to have written himself. We have no evidence to suggest otherwise. Why SC-T should choose to write the text himself is very bemusing, as he is famously known to have loved good poetry and literature, but his attempt at an operatic libretto is, frankly, poor and some might say embarrassing. He took the work to the Carl Rosa Opera Company, in the hope that they would stage it, but they turned it down and it is thought that the weak libretto was to blame. Having said this, the plot is good and generally does all the right things. It includes the full range of voices and dramatically is very cohesive.
Thelma is a saga of deceit, magic, retribution and the triumph of love over evil, where two rival suitors, Eric and Carl, have to face the perils of the terrifying Maelström – a swirling ocean vortex – to retrieve a golden goblet, lost at sea when one of King Olaf’s (Thelma’s father) forbears was celebrating after winning a sea battle. Of course Thelma is in love with only one of the suitors and luckily the one that has a Godmother to protect him and who has magic powers – of course! However Carl does not play fair and the road to Thelma’s hand is not straightforward for Eric. Enough said, I think!
After Thelma was turned down by the Carl Rosa we can only imagine that SC-T returned home to Croydon, somewhat disgruntled, and put the score in the proverbial bottom drawer. Luckily he had produced a complete and, on the whole, readable vocal score and similarly a full score – both in three volumes, one for each act.
Samuel’s untimely death
Not long afterwards, on 1 September 1912, Coleridge-Taylor died, still a young man in his prime. His widow Jessie (née Walmisley) tried to secure a government subvention to pay for a new libretto to be written for Thelma, but she was not succesful. She had hoped to engage the services of no less a person that Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s father, but, as I say, it was not to be.
The various biographies of SC-T suggest that the manuscripts were lost, but this was not so and in fact in Avril Coleridge-Taylor’s biography she states only that Thelma is in manuscript, not lost, as other biographies do. This suggests that she had seen it or, perhaps, that it was even in her possession. Either way, in 1986 it was sold to the British Library, along with other SC-T manuscripts etc, by a Richard McNutt, who may well have been acting on Avril’s behalf. Avril, who was christened Gwendolen (but that’s another story!), was Samuel and Jessie Coleridge-Taylor’s daughter and a composer and conductor in her own right. They also had a son, Hiawatha, known as ‘Watha’, who was similarly a musician.
The problem in actually locating Thelma seems to have been that it was not very obviously catalogued, either in book form or, more recently, online (1999), so that when Catherine Carr, a doctoral student from Durham University, came down to London to do more thorough research, she was not expecting to come upon Thelma, but suddenly there it was in one of the boxes! Not in fact lost, but, shall we say, hidden! Catherine’s doctorate is very extensive, as you would expect, and we owe her a great debt of gratitude for bringing the Thelma scores to our notice.
Had Catherine not done so the opera may have remained hidden for years. Having said this I should point out that Nicolas Bell at the British Library and, I assume, some of his colleagues past and present were aware that the manuscripts were housed at the Library but there seems to have been a misunderstanding over the cataloguing.
A more extended version of this article was first published in Opera magazine, January 2012.
The opera ‘Thelma’ will be performed on 9, 10 & 11 February 2012 in the Ashcroft Theatre of Fairfield Halls, Croydon, conducted by Jonathan Butcher. Details of these performances are available here.
Contact Jonathan Butcher here.