Hiawatha’s composer: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

In August 1912, the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was standing on the platform of West Croydon station when he was taken ill. A few days later he was dead and plans to stage his three cantatas about the Native American leader Hiawatha – a huge pageant in a vast space – were shelved.

Twelve years later, in 1924, Thomas C Fairbairn, the producer who had been negotiating with Coleridge-Taylor to put on the Hiawatha trilogy – Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, The Death of Minnehaha and Hiawatha’s Departure – was invited by the Royal Albert Hall to stage a charity event. So began a series of quite remarkable annual Hiawatha stagings which are the subject of a fascinating documentary written and presented by CM contributor Andrew Green to commemorate the centenary of Coleridge-Taylor’s death.

For two weeks every year, including matinees, the Royal Albert Hall resounded to the whoops of the Wild West. The constituent parts of the staging were, Green explains, ‘the tribal encampment in the arena with hundreds of members of the Royal Choral Society wearing home-made Indian garb with black pigtails and feathers. It’s extraordinary to think of all those people sitting at home in Surbiton or Cricklewood running up their costumes for the Albert Hall. On the stage were wigwams which people say puffed imitation smoke, while from the roof, hiding the organ, hung a vast backcloth with a panorama of snowy mountains and shining Big-Sea-Water. Also on stage was a track on which sat Hiawatha’s canoe; a rope tugged him off. There was even running water because there’s an underground stream under the Albert Hall, which was channeled in some way. The orchestra was on the other side of the arena from the stage, which created some communication problems, and many members of the audience wore their own costumes.’ Many eminent British soloists took part in these extravaganzas, while the conductor most associated with them was Malcolm Sargent.

A flyer from a Malcolm Sargent-conducted run of Hiawatha
Photograph: Royal Philharmonic Society

In Coleridge-Taylor’s lifetime, Hiawatha had made him a hero amongst black people in the United States. ‘He was invited over to conduct Hiawatha,’ comments Green, ‘and made two further trips to the States before he died. He was even given an audience at the White House by Theodore Roosevelt, which must have been hugely significant.’

As far as possible, Green has told the story of the Albert Hall stagings through eyewitness accounts. Interviewees include Sylvia Darley – Sargent’s secretary and then manager, who remembers going as a child – and two ladies Green discovered on the Isle of Wight ‘who lived within half-an-hour of each other and yet weren’t aware of each other’s existence. They had been in it as children.’ Coleridge-Taylor’s great grandson has been interviewed and there are archive recordings of people like Buffalo Bill, whose Wild West Show Coleridge-Taylor had seen as a child, and Thomas Fairbairn.

The last of the Fairbairn Albert Hall events took place with the onset of war in 1939. The production was revived in 1953, Coronation Year, and sold out but the following year bookings were so bad the season was pulled the week before it was due to start. Could such a production ever be staged again? Raymond Gubbay is on hand to provide the answer.

Sumptuous Was the Feast can be heard on Radio 3, 27 October and on iPlayer.