As we reach the centenary of the final birthday, on 15 August 1912, of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation and HOPES: The Hope Street Association are pleased to announce that recently they jointly commissioned a Nonet, with the same instrumentation as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s own Nonet in F minor, op. 2* (1895), from the composer Richard Gordon-Smith.
This commission marks the final chapter in the history of the Liverpool UK charity HOPES, which was the vehicle through which for more than a decade the works of Coleridge-Taylor were explored in an annual community-based festival in which Richard Gordon-Smith (with his RLPO colleague Martin Anthony Burrage) were the musical directors. The organisational legacy of HOPES is the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation, set up to continue the exploration of that composer’s life and works, and to engage a community of interest which now spreads quite literally around the globe.
Richard Gordon-Smith has completed his new Nonet to co-incide with the centenary of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s death. He writes:
Richard Gordon-Smith – Nonet Op.49 ‘Aims and Desires’
“There is, of course, a large section of the British people interested in the coloured races; but it is, generally speaking, a commercial interest only. Some of these may possibly be interested in the aims and desires of the coloured peoples; but, taking them on a whole, I fancy one accomplished fact carries far more weight than a thousand aims and desires, regrettable though it may be…”
(Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, African Times and Orient Review, July, 1912)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor wrote these lines only two months before his untimely death on 1st September 1912 at the age of 37. Though he may not have realised it, Coleridge-Taylor’s life and work was itself a prime example of ‘one accomplished fact’ that would ultimately carry weight in the struggle against prejudice in modern society. With his huge talents as composer, conductor and pianist, he implicitly defied the musical world – and therefore society at large – to ignore him, thereby causing many people to reassess their own racial preconceptions. He was a prominent delegate at the first Pan African Congress in 1900 and acquainted with many activists, including Booker T Washington, advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt.
I have written my Nonet Op.49 at the request of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation and HOPES: The Hope Street Association in commemoration of the Centenary of SC-T’s death. I gave the piece the title ‘Aims and Desires’ in reference not only to the historical aspirations of ethnic minorities, but to those of all minority groups in society who still suffer prejudice, whether for reasons of disability, religion, sexuality, race or any other characteristic for which they may be unfairly set apart.
The work follows the instrumentation of Coleridge-Taylor’s own 1894 Nonet in F minor Op.2 for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, contrabass and piano, and is in four movements; it has however few other features in common with the earlier piece and there is no sense in which the two could be compared.
I always enjoy writing for combinations of instruments that I have not tried before and I have found stimulating challenges involved in composing this piece. The music is not programmatic in the sense of telling a story, but the example of Coleridge-Taylor’s practical concern with black emancipation has led me to think along certain emotional lines.
The first movement is based on a theme akin to the Moslem ‘call to prayer’ over a series of pedal tones. As it grows however, it loses religious ‘detachment’, becoming personalised and tragic in nature, with elements of anxiety and stress felt in the rhythmic drive and dissonant harmonies. The second movement contains suggestions of a journey, maybe across an ocean. In the third movement a chorale-like treatment of previous material again hints at religious overtones but in a more relaxed context, while the fourth movement references African poly-rhythms.
This Nonet is offered as a tribute to the life and ideals of a great man and a great musician.
The intention underpinning this commission is to emphasise that the legacy of those who leave us much of value is not simply retrospective. Like others whose legacy is important and substantial, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor has given us also a way forward; and that is what the newly commissioned Nonet reminds us about.
Plans for the two Nonets to be performed together as a concert programme are currently being taken forward.