How a small orchestra increased access to the music of once-renowned Black composer

Can a small orchestra working on a shoestring budget make a global difference in the world of classical music?

One example might be the Holland Symphony Orchestra lifting up a once-renowned composition by 19th-century Black composer and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Not only did the orchestra introduce Coleridge-Taylor’s music to its small-town audience in a concert last fall, but it now is making the arrangement available for free to orchestras around the globe to perform.

"It's wonderful to see an important work like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha Suite infuse orchestra programs," says Simon Woods, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. "Johannes Müller Stosch and the Holland Symphony Orchestra are providing a great service by helping to make this music accessible to the orchestra field." 

Faded out of sight

In the late 1800s, English-born Coleridge-Taylor created the music to underscore Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem about Native American characters, “The Song of Hiawatha.” His resulting fame was so great that President Teddy Roosevelt invited him to the White House during one of his three successful tours of the United States. 

While his music was wildly popular in its day, it didn’t make it across the centuries. With the exception of William Grant Still, few Black composers are part of the canon of work performed by today’s orchestras.

“There are some composers that did for some reason,” says Johannes Müller Stosch, HSO’s musical director and conductor. “And I would say more composers of color didn't. And so it's great that these parts exist, and that we're now shining a light on all this repertoire that needs to be done.” 

He credits the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Movement for creating interest in the classical music world in bringing diversity to programming. But for that to happen, these pieces need to be listed in anthologies and the parts need to be available. 

As a composer, Coleridge-Taylor “sought to draw from traditional African music and integrate it into the classical tradition, which he considered Johannes Brahms to have done with Hungarian music and Antonín Dvořák with Bohemian music,” according to blackmozart.org.


Creating a full score

The “Hiawatha Suite” came from one of Coleridge-Taylor’s greatest successes – a cantata called “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.”  He was also a conductor and created a recording of this suite using a piano score—a simplified score that looks like a piano part, with only occasional indications of which instrument plays any specific part, Müller Stosch says.

The 1920 recording, available on YouTube, is so scratchy that it is hard to hear.  Until last fall, this was the only available recording of the work.

When Müller Stosch programmed a work by Coleridge-Taylor at the 2021 fall concert, the parts had just become available due to the expiration of the copyright restrictions. No full score existed—only the condensed piano version. 

The lack of familiarity with this work made the absence of a full score a serious obstacle to performance. 

Müller Stosch contracted a former student at California State University-Long Beach, where he teaches at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music. The former student then produced a full score from the individual instrumental parts. 

“This mammoth undertaking took a lot of dedication and a great amount of work,” Müller Stosch says of the work done by Nate Tronerud, a composer and musician, who has done work for film studios.

Now available to all

The university and HSO shared the cost.  The score and individual parts were then made available online — free — for any interested orchestras to use.  The live recording made at the HSO concert has been shared on YouTube, allowing conductors to look at the score while hearing a matching recording. 

HSO recently learned the Boise Philharmonic is interested in performing the piece after conductor Eric Garcia found the HSO recording on Youtube.

The elevation of the work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is part of a larger effort HSO started a few years ago when its artistic team began working to add music of underrepresented composers to the orchestra’s concerts.

“Removing these kinds of barriers is a great step toward making this literature more accessible for future programming,” says Kay Walvoord, longtime CEO of HSO. 

One of the criticisms of symphonies is that the music they perform largely comes from a European model of symphonic history, including the works of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Tchaikovsky, to name a few.

As the HSO,  one of Holland’s oldest music organizations, commits to being more diverse and inclusive, it is exploring why more music of non-white composers is not being performed and looking for ways to address the issue.

Introducing today’s audience to the work of Coleridge-Taylor is a step toward that goal, Walvoord says. 

Want to learn more about the legacy of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, including why he didn't reap the windfall of his biggest career success? Listen to Johannes Müller Stosch and Concert Master Amanda Dykhouse discuss the life and legacy of the acclaimed composer in this pre-concert talk. The conversation starts at the 10:25 minute mark.