Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet

It is perhaps unsurprising that one of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s early champions should have been Elgar. Taylor had a way with a tune, and not a few of his tunes sound distinctly Elgarian. In a letter to his publisher, August Jaeger, in the summer of 1898, Elgar spoke of having one of Taylor’s themes “jigging in the vacuities of my head”. But it was clearly more than a fondness of Taylor’s tunes that attracted the older composer to the young man’s music. In September that same year, Elgar wrote of Taylor, “I wish the critics had a little more imagination when British music is concerned: if it’s cut and dried they sneer at it, and if we do show a bit of real feeling and emotion they laugh at it”. There is something collegiate in that we.

Sadly, though, what might have turned out to be a friendship of great value to both men, soon soured. By 1900, Elgar wrote to Jaeger, bitterly, of being “cruelly disillusioned by the overture to Hiawatha which I think really only ‘rot’”. Ah well*, but notwithstanding Elgar’s disillusionment, insofar as his – and Jaeger’s – endorsements of the young composer were signal in setting him on the path to success, we must be grateful.

One of Taylor’s most delightful compositions happens to have its share of Elgarian melodic ideas, though if we are to look for a compositional progenitor we should rather single out Dvorak, and the midwifery duties we must ascribe to Charles Villiers Stanford. In 1895, when Stanford commented to his students at the Royal College of Music that no one could now write a clarinet quintet that did not show the influence of Brahms’s late masterpiece in the form, his star pupil set out to prove him wrong. And so the enchanting Clarinet Quintet in F Sharp Minor was born.

When Taylor was writing his quintet, Elgar was unaware of Taylor and, as far as can be told, Taylor unaware of Elgar; besides which, the older composer’s great chamber works were not to appear for almost a quarter century. But listen to the second subject that Taylor dreamed up for the Quintet’s opening movement and relish its heartwarming wistfulness, and the connection between the two men seems inevitable.

At this stage I should stop with the Elgarian and the Dvorakian, and give Taylor his due as a remarkable and distinctive musical personality. Imagination and assurance abound from the Quintet’s opening bars, where, from the brisk pizzicati and choppy cello undertow, a sunnier melody with plucky perfect-fifth leaps is buffeted. Thus are the tensions that drive this opening movement immediately established, and the youthful composer puts not a foot wrong throughout. No wonder that Stanford exclaimed on sight of the new score “You’ve done it me boy!”

The slow movement is tender and soulful, though not entirely untroubled. It has moments of magic, such as when the ‘cello begins a decorated version of the main tune, cut short when the clarinet plucks plaintively at its sleeve. Or shortly afterwards, when the clarinet reclaims the tune and is given a heart-rending descant from the first violin.

There’s mischief afoot in the scherzo with some seat-of-the-pants rhythmic interplay and a mock solemn trio section. The finale somehow manages to keep up the level of invention in all that has preceded, with a folky tune dancing over a striding rhythm and – one of the piece’s masterstrokes – the affecting re-appearance of the slow movement’s tune at the end of the development section.

Over the past decade or so there has been quite a resurgence of interest in Taylor. The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation has an excellent website where enthusiasts can connect and exchange information, and new recordings of Taylor’s works appear frequently, with more promised. It will be interesting to see how this extraordinary man’s body of music is reassessed, and whether it reclaims even part of the public affection that was given to his Hiawatha pieces in the last century. If there’s any justice, though, the Clarinet Quintet, at least, will take up its place as a much-loved staple among chamber groups and their audiences. It is, quite simply, a marvel.

* Hiawatha was to be a serious rival in popularity to Elgar’s Gerontius throughout the first half of the twentieth century

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