American Essence

‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’: A Forgotten Classic

BY Andrew Benson Brown TIMEFebruary 3, 2023 PRINT

One indication of a poet’s importance is how often his or her poems are set to music. Hundreds of composers, from Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius to lesser names, have transposed Shakespeare’s plays into operas, ballets, overtures, and every other existing musical form. Throw in compositions that have been directly inspired by the Bard, such as “Kiss Me, Kate” and “West Side Story,” and one can plausibly conclude that Shakespeare, the greatest writer in English, is also the most lyricized writer of all time. This is not surprising, as his plays are themselves full of songs and his blank verse has a highly musical quality.

A little over a century ago, a choral adaptation of a literary work became the most popular composition of the era. While its composer has been largely forgotten today, he deserves to be better known.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, in this photograph taken in his 50s, composed “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.” (Public Domain)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and ‘Hiawatha’

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow enjoyed international acclaim in the 19th and early 20th centuries. British composers such as Edward Elgar, Arthur Sullivan, and Benjamin Britten set his poems to music. Still others adapted parts of Longfellow’s most famous work, “The Song of Hiawatha.” Antonin Dvorak based two movements of his “New World Symphony” on episodes from it, and he contemplated, but never wrote, an operatic version of the poem.

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Theatrical performance of “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.” (National Park Service)

For Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, though (not to be confused with the Romantic poet), “The Song of Hiawatha” had a special appeal. Born in 1875 to an Englishwoman and a doctor from Sierra Leone, as an Anglo-African man he sympathized with the plight of Native American Indians. He read Longfellow’s epic, identified with its hero, and even named his only son Hiawatha. With established figures like Elgar and Sullivan promoting his talents as a young composer, he began receiving important commissions. In 1897, Coleridge-Taylor began writing a cantata for tenor, mixed chorus, and orchestra that dramatized a wedding scene from the story.

“Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” premiered on Nov. 11, 1898 at the Royal College of Music. Coleridge-Taylor, shy and anxious, listened to the performance from behind a screen. Afterwards, he hid in doorways to avoid being seen by excited audience members who had given the work a standing ovation.

Upon hearing the cantata, Sullivan called it “brilliant and full of color … at times luscious, rich and sensual.” Modern listeners coming to the piece for the first time are often struck with these same impressions.

“Hiawatha” opens with a simple but memorable tune that recurs, with variation, throughout the work. Longfellow’s lyrics feature lavish descriptions of the wedding guests’ clothing, dinnerware, and food before one of the characters, Pau-Puk-Keewis, is called upon to perform a joyful dance. Coleridge-Taylor’s melodies and harmonies wonderfully imitate the grace and richness of Longfellow’s scene, with the rhythm and key changing to the dancer’s movements. Female voices alternate with male ones to sing the lyrics, and this counterpoint is augmented through leitmotifs as orchestral instruments repeat choral phrases—an original application of the Wagnerian style to the cantata form. The highlight of the piece is a tenor solo that was hailed by Coleridge-Taylor’s first biographer, W.C. Berwick Sayers, as “perhaps the most perfect tenor aria of the last generation.

Though a choral work, the construction is symphonic and revolves around the complex transformations of a few elegant musical ideas. Speaking of his composition, Coleridge-Taylor said that “the essential beauty of the poem is its native simplicity, its unaffected expression, its unforced idealism.”

The cantata’s originality was immediately recognized. It began to be performed throughout the world, in places as distant as New Zealand. Its success led Coleridge-Taylor to write two sequel cantatas, “The Death of Minnehaha” and “Hiawatha’s Departure.” The trilogy was collectively named “Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha,” and premiered at Royal Albert Hall in London in 1900, where it was performed by a choir of over 1,000 singers.

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Coleridge-Taylor became one of the world’s most famous living composers. He was invited to the United States, where he met Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. Until his death, his “Hiawatha” cantatas were performed more often than any other work by a composer of his generation. Among choral works, only Handel’s “Messiah” rivaled its popularity.

The Downside of Success

Coleridge-Taylor’s fame inspired professional jealousies, especially among more “serious” composers. Cantata-writing was not held in the same repute as symphonic works, and he was not respected on the European continent. He was, essentially, relegated to a niche genre.

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Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (circa 1893) composed “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.” (Public Domain)

Despite the many performances of his work, modern copyright laws did not yet exist. Coleridge-Taylor received no royalties for “Hiawatha” or anything else he wrote. Although his publisher, Novello, made massive earnings from the “Wedding Feast,” Coleridge-Taylor received only £70 from its initial sale.

Over the next decade, chronic overwork broke him. He was constantly riding trains to conduct performances of “Hiawatha” somewhere. He continued to teach students. He churned out new works on commission, many of them uninspired pieces written in a state of financial desperation. He wrote magazine articles. He was constantly solicited to give interviews and opinions. But his work ethic was not well-remunerated. When he caught pneumonia in 1912, he had no strength to fight it. He was only 37.

For over 20 years after his death, the “Hiawatha” trilogy was performed often throughout the British Empire. Then its popularity faded, and its composer was forgotten.

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the epic poem “Song of Hiawatha” which inspired Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

A Fruitful Collaboration

In the same year that he started writing “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” Coleridge-Taylor met Paul Laurence Dunbar, a black American poet traveling in England. Dunbar, three years older than Coleridge-Taylor and the son of a slave, made the Englishman more aware of the injustice blacks were experiencing in the United States. 

The two artists began collaborating closely. Coleridge-Taylor set some of Dunbar’s poems to music, notably “Seven African Romances” and “A Corn Song.” They gave two joint recitals where these were performed. Dunbar also probably acquainted Coleridge-Taylor with African songs in America, which seems to have informed his “African Suite” dating from this period. Their final collaboration together was “Dream Lovers,” a one-act opera about a biracial Madagascan prince who has been searching for a woman he has been dreaming about, and who has also been dreaming of him. The light romance bears comparison to a work by Gilbert and Sullivan. Dunbar wrote the libretto to Coleridge-Taylor’s score but left England before he could witness its performance the following year. 

Following this period, Coleridge-Taylor would continue to occasionally compose pieces that reflected pride in his racial roots. This body of work is unique for attempting to incorporate the spirit of his paternal African heritage within the European classical style in which he was trained.

Coleridge-Taylor himself suffered from racial discrimination during his lifetime, both during his visits to America and from English music critics who interpreted his work through the lens of his skin color. This, combined with the fact that he died young, has played a large role in his neglect. 

Fortunately, the last three decades have seen a resurgence of interest in his work. New performances, recordings, and scholarly studies are recognizing other significant pieces in his oeuvre. Hopefully, this revival will continue and restore Coleridge-Taylor’s position in the pantheon of modern composers.

Andrew Benson Brown is a Missouri-based poet, journalist, and writing coach. He is an editor at Bard Owl Publishing and Communications and the author of “Legends of Liberty,” an epic poem about the American Revolution. For more information, visit
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