Composer, conductor, musician, poet, and writer R. Nathaniel Dett

History Hunt: R. Nathaniel Dett

This week (well…it was supposed to be last week, but I had a ton of errands), we’ll be meeting our second Canadian of History Hunt, someone who actually lived fairly near me! It was a really neat discovery for me, and I’m planning on going out of my way to introduce my music students to him as soon as I can track down some of his works.

Robert Nathaniel Dett was born in Drummondville (now a part of Niagara Falls), Ontario, Canada on October 11, 1882.

Ontario, Canada, birthplace of R. Nathaniel Dett

Ontario, Canada, birthplace of R. Nathaniel Dett

At first, Dett’s musician parents didn’t realise that their youngest son had inherited their gift, but that was soon to change. While two of his older brothers were receiving piano lessons, Dett began to copy them. He played their pieces–but without the sheet music they were using. When his brothers’ teacher found out, she was so impressed that she started teaching him for free!

When Dett was eleven, his family moved to the United States side of Niagara Falls. There, he continued his piano lessons and later, around when he was fourteen, he took a job as a bellhop at a local hotel. When he had the time, he would play the piano located in the lobby, which earned him more than a few fans.

The next year, in 1897, Dett made a decision. While he was setting up chairs in the hotel parlor for a visiting bass singer (who had actually been his Sunday School superintendent), he told himself that the next time he moved chairs, it would be for his own recital. Sure enough, later that summer, he was able to put on a piano recital in the same hotel parlor.

When he was sixteen, Dett became church organist at a church on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. In 1901, Dett began studying at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory of Music; two years later, he quit his job as church organist to join the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. There, he majored in both piano and composition, which would have been a tremendous amount of work. It also would have been expensive, but luckily, when Dett gave a benefit concert after his first year to raise money for his classes, one of the attendees was so impressed that he promised to help him pay for his lessons.

While Dett was at Oberlin, he heard a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s American quartet that changed the course of his life. This work for strings was composed using traditional folk songs, and as Dett listened, he remembered his grandmother, who had sung songs written by African-Americans while enslaved. Dett had never been comfortable with the reminders of such a terrible time those songs brought. But now, he became determined to keep the memory of these songs alive, so they wouldn’t fade away.

In 1908, Dett graduated from Oberlin, holding a Bachelor of Music degree with honours. He was the first Black person to earn this degree at Oberlin. That wasn’t the last time Dett studied music, though: he earned degrees and honourary degrees from universities all over the United States, including the highly prestigious Harvard University. By far, Dett’s biggest learning trip was to Paris, France, later in his life. There, he studied with Nadia Boulanger, the older sister of last week’s History Hunt composer, Lili Boulanger.

After Dett’s graduation, he began teaching at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. In 1911, he showed he was a man of many talents by publishing a book of poetry he dedicated to his mother. He spent the next few years teaching at two more universities and studying how to teach choirs, and then, in 1914, he gave two piano recitals that cemented his reputation as a composer and a pianist–one of which was at the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Club in Chicago, Illinois. (This club was named after a previously featured History Hunt composer, who you can read about here.) He also entered a composition contest that same year put on by the Music School Settlement of New York and came second.

During World War I, Dett wrote music to keep up the spirits of both Canadians and Americans alike. He also got married, in 1916, to Helen Elise Smith, who was the first Black person to graduate from the Damrosch Institute of Musical Art (which later became part of the famous Julliard School of Music).

After the war, Dett founded the National Association of Negro Musicians in 1919, and was its president between 1924 and 1926. The next year, he published an essay in four parts called Negro Music, which was an analysis of the state of Black folk songs and how they might best be preserved. This essay won him a Bowdoin Prize from Harvard. These prizes are “some of Harvard’s oldest and most prestigious student awards” (Harvard); winning one was very significant indeed. He also won a Francis Boott prize from Harvard in the same year, this time for his composition “Don’t Be Weary, Traveller.” And, on top of that,  later on, one of the groups to commission compositions from him was the TV station CBS, who asked for two separate symphonies!

After teaching at numerous universities, Dett settled at Hampton Institute in Virginia. There, he became the university’s first Black Director of Music by 1926 and united the university choir with local singers. With Dett at its head, the resulting choir went on numerous tours all across the United States and even to Europe and became very popular indeed. They performed in famous venues such as Carnegie Hall and Constitution Hall–the very same location that, eight years later, would refuse to allow Marian Anderson to perform for racist reasons. (See my History Hunt post on Marian Anderson for more information.)

Dett’s determination to preserve and help Black traditional music grow lives on even today. The Nathaniel Dett Chorale states on its website that it “is Canada’s first professional choral group dedicated to Afrocentric music of all styles, including classical, spiritual, gospel, jazz, folk and blues.” Dett would have been proud indeed.

Below is one of Dett’s most popular pieces from the suite In the Bottoms,  “Juba,” which is based on traditional Black music and dance.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
R. Nathaniel Dett at
R. Nathaniel Dett at Afrocentric Voices In “Classical” Music
Nathaniel Dett at The Canadian Encyclopedia
Roots and The Chorale at The Nathaniel Dett Chorale
Nathaniel Dett at Black History Canada
Robert N. Dett at the African American Registry
Dett, R. Nathaniel at
R. Nathaniel Dett’s Views on the Preservation of Black Music by Jon Michael Spencer
Robert Nathaniel Dett Facts at YourDictionary
Bowdoin Prizes for Undergraduates at Harvard University
Dett Wins Francis Boott Prize at The Harvard Crimson
Juba dance at
R. Nathaniel Dett at (Image Source)


Angela Morley

History Hunt: Angela Morley

This week, we’re moving forward in the 20th century to meet a composer who not only wrote for numerous popular TV shows, but collaborated with some of the biggest names of the 20th and 21st centuries!

Angela Morley was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England on March 10, 1924. Her parents were both amateur musicians: her mother sang (her favourite song being “Big Lady Moon” by previously featured composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor) and her father played the banjo ukulele.

Morley loved music from the very beginning of her life. Before she could read, she learned to change the records on the family gramophone by recognising the colour of the label, and her earliest musical memory was sitting on the floor, surrounded by records.

When she was eight years old, her father bought a piano and her mother arranged for Morley to take piano lessons. However, after only three months, Morley had to stop her lessons when her father died suddenly and she and her mother moved away to live with Morley’s grandparents.

Over the next while, Morley tried out several different instruments. She spent a month learning to play the violin, but her grandfather disliked the instrument, and after he buttered her bow as a practical joke, Morley stopped playing. When she was eleven, she took accordion lessons and even won a few competitions with her performance. Unfortunately, a judge for one of these competitions told her mother there was “no future” in a career as an accordionist. (Morley)

Though the remark was both poorly chosen and untrue, Morley gave up the accordion and began clarinet lessons on a cheap clarinet that only partly worked. In spite of not being able to afford a better instrument, she was able to join the school orchestra. While in the orchestra, the mother of one of Morley’s fellow students bought her an alto sax–and that was where things changed.

Morley started playing with a semi-professional dance band; by the time she was fifteen, she had quit school and was earning her living playing the alto sax. It wasn’t much money, but at least she was doing what she loved.

Soon after, World War II began, and that turned out to be a blessing in a very large disguise for Morley. During this time, many musicians were being drafted to fight in the war. Morley, however, was too young for the draft and by this time was skilled enough to easily replace any holes in a band’s lineup. She played all over England until, when she was seventeen, she joined the extremely successful Oscar Rabin Band as their lead alto saxophonist. She also began earning money by arranging music.

Three years later, Morley went from one highly popular band to another: The Geraldo Band. It was here that Morley’s arranging skills blossomed. The Geraldo Band played in all sorts of styles for BBC Radio, which forced Morley to stretch herself to accommodate the demands of radio.

With such high expectations of her, Morley began studying composition with Mátyás Seiber, a Hungarian composer. She also studied conducting with Walter Goehr. After all, since she was working with live musicians, it made sense for her to learn to conduct them.

By the time she was twenty-six, Morley had decided to stop performing so she could better concentrate on her composing and arrangements. Unlike many new composers, Morley had work right from the start. Within two years, she started ghost-writing film music; a year after that she became the music director of Phillips Records’ new UK branch. She began writing film music under her own name, and worked on not one, but two of the most popular shows of the 1950s: The Goon Show and Hancock’s Half Hour! When she was ask to compose Hancock’s Half Hour‘s theme, she made it match the personality of the host–without ever having met him! She also worked with many of the great artists of the 50s, including Marlene Dietrich, Shirley Bassey, Mel Tormé, and Dusty Springfield.

In 1960, Morley had decided against working any more with film music. While recording technology had advanced tremendously during this time, film music in England, at least, had yet to take advantage of it. The sound quality of the music produced was so bad that Morley couldn’t stand working with it!

She changed her mind later in the decade and did her best to break back into the film industry. It took her until 1969, but in the end, she succeeded, writing scores for classics such as The Little Prince and Watership Down, the first of which earned her an Academy Award nomination!

1972 was a very important year for Morley. When she was born, her parents had assumed she was a boy and had given her a male name. However, they had made a mistake. Now, with the support of her wife, Christine, Morley was able to correct this mistake with gender confirmation surgery–sometimes incorrectly called “sex change surgery.”

While life these days can be very difficult for trans people, in the 1970s, there was even more prejudice among the general public. When Morley returned to the music community after a hiatus, she received a wide variety of reactions. Some were positive: when she went to retire from her current conducting position because she assumed she would no longer be welcome, one of her fellow musicians, Johnny Franz, convinced her to stay. Morley’s wife also remained married to her for the rest of their lives.

Some reactions, however, were negative. Many people were extremely rude and prejudiced against Morley and chose to be cruel. But Morley outlasted their ignorance and resumed her career. She continued to compose and, after moving to California, went on to collaborate with other composers–such as John Williams on Star Wars: A New Hope and Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back!

For the rest of her life, Morley continued to compose for important TV shows and movies, conducted, and collaborated with other composers. She worked on E.T., Dallas, Wonder Woman, and Home Alone, to name a few of her credits. She also wrote arrangements for famous musicians such as Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman and gave lectures on writing music for movies at the University of Southern California. And, thankfully, shereceived recognition for her work: she was nominated for six Emmys for her compositions and two Academy Awards overall, and won three Emmys for her arrangements.

Below is Morley’s “Rotten Row,” named after the location in Hyde Park where people historically went horse-riding. It sounds like the perfect song to listen to while on horseback!

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
*Important note: Most of the sources discussing Morley involve misgendering, transphobia, or both. Exceptions are “A Profile of Angela Morley” and the autobiography on Morley’s site. Please tread carefully.

Angela Morley: Career Autobiography on Angela Morley’s official site
A Profile of Angela Morley, excerpt from a longer BBC programme on light music
Angela Morley at The Guardian
Angela Morley at The Telegraph
Angela Morley: Composer and arranger who worked with Scott Walker and scored ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Dallas’ at The Independent
Angela Morley at
Angela Morley at

Teresa Carreño

History Hunt: Teresa Carreño

This week we’re heading fifty years into the future and halfway across the world to meet our next featured artist: Teresa Carreño!

Teresa Carreño (full name: María Teresa Carreño García de Sena) was born on December 22, 1853 in Caracas, Venezuela.


Venezuela, birthplace of Teresa Carreño.

Her family was a musical one–not only did her father play the piano in his spare time, but her grandfather was a well-known composer. Almost right away, Carreño’s family noticed her musical talents, but they decided to wait until she was six to start piano lessons. And as soon as she did, she began composing.

When Carreño was eight years old, her family moved from Venezuela to New York City. The situation in Venezuela were becoming unstable, and her family felt Carreño would have more chances to become famous in such a large city. A few months later, Carreño gave her first public performance at Irving Hall (which unfortunately no longer exists). It was a huge success and led to four repeat performances.

Teresa Carreño

Teresa Carreño as a girl.

Thanks to her concerts, Carreño met the most famous pianist in America at the time, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. He was so impressed with her incredible piano playing that he taught her for a while and gave her a great deal of publicity. In return, Carreño named her first published piece, when she was nine, the “Gottschalk Waltz.”

Shortly after, Carreño went on tour throughout the Eastern United States and to Cuba. In the fall, she gave a private concert to American president Abraham Lincoln in the White House!

By the time she was twelve, Carreño had a solid reputation as a brilliant pianist–something many adults would be envious of. But instead of coasting on her success, she and her family moved to Paris: now it was time to conquer Europe.

And conquer Europe she did. Within two months of arriving in Paris, Carreño became a favourite of famous musicians, received lessons from some of the best teachers of her time, composed a large number of pieces, and began touring throughout Europe. But when the Franco-Prussian War began four years after she arrived, Carreño and her family moved to London.

She also started an opera career in the most sink-or-swim way possible. While she was on tour, a mezzo-soprano who was to perform the role of the Queen in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots became too sick to sing. Without a single rehearsal, Carreño took her place–and was a success!

When Carreño was twenty-one, she returned to the United States to pick up her performing career there, now as an adult and not a child prodigy. She also conducted, which was quite rare for a woman of her time.

By now, she had earned her nickname, “The Valkyrie of the Piano.” She had become famous for her passionate, energetic playing…and also for changing around musical directions in the piano pieces by different composers that were part of her concerts. It was a brave move that allowed her personality to shine through her performances–even if sometimes she annoyed composers doing it!

In 1876, Carreño launched her opera career in the more traditional way. She played the role of Zerlina in Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart, debuting in New York City. Even if she was an opera singer only briefly, her career was considered a success all the same.

Carreño took a break from touring throughout the United States and Canada when she was thirty-one: for the first time since she was eight years old, she returned to Venezuela. Although she stayed for less than a year, she still gave concerts, composed, started an opera troupe (which unfortunately didn’t last), and helped plan the creation of a Venezuelan conservatory of music.

A few years later, it was back to Europe for Carreño. This time, she moved to Berlin and made her German debut as a guest soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. She was just as popular in Germany as she had been elsewhere, leading her to become “the leading female pianist of the period” (ANBO). She toured not only throughout Europe, but in Australia, New Zealand, South America, and the United States. She continued to compose, became a sought-after teacher, and even wrote a treatise, or long essay, called “Possibilities of Tone Color by Artistic Use of Pedals.”

After World War I broke out and later worsened, it became too dangerous for Carreño to tour. She returned to the United States to stay, and for the rest of her life, continued to tour throughout America and Cuba. Though she isn’t as well-known nowadays as she ought to be, she’s still remembered. She has a youth orchestra named after her, the most important theatre in Venezuela (and the second-largest in South America!) is called the Teresa Carreño Cultural Complex, and there’s even a crater on Venus named after her!

Listen below to one of Carreño’s piano compositions, the Kleiner Walzer, dedicated to her daughter Teresita, who became a well-known pianist in her own right.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Carreño, Teresa at the American National Bibliography Online site
Teresa Carreño: A Biographical Sketch by Brian Mann via the Wayback Machine
Profile of Teresa Carreño at About EducationIrving Place Theatre at
Teresa Carreño at
Teresa Carreño at (German)
Kleiner Walzer (Carreño, Teresa) at the International Music Score Library Project
Image source for young Carreño:

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

History Hunt: Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

This week, it’s time for another History Hunt success story! Our featured composer was forgotten for nearly a hundred and fifty years, but recently, dedicated History Hunters have started bringing her to public notice at long last.

Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn Hensel (birth name: Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn) was born in Hamburg, Germany, on November 14, 1805. Her mother, Lea, was a pianist and singer and her father was a banker. When Hensel was born, her father wrote a letter to his mother-in-law, saying that he thought his new daughter had a pianist’s fingers–and he turned out to be right.

Hensel’s first music teacher was her mother, who had studied with one of famous composer J.S. Bach’s own students. She was a good teacher, making sure that she never pushed her little daughter past her ability to concentrate, but after a while, she began looking for other teachers to help Hensel grow.

The first music teacher Hensel had who wasn’t her mother was Marie Bigot, who had met both Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven. Hensel studied with her when she was eleven and living in Paris for a few months. Later, when the family had moved to Berlin, her new teachers were former students of still more famous composers–Hensel’s family wanted nothing but the best education for their children.

In a way, it was strange that Hensel and her younger sister received the same education as her two little brothers. Their father believed that women had no business doing anything but taking care of the house and their husband and children when they married. However, even though he discouraged Hensel from taking her musical talents seriously, he still wanted her to have a good education.

In 1816, a few years earlier, Hensel and her siblings were all baptised in a Christian church and her father changed the family name to Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Though both sides of her family were Jewish, prejudice against Jewish people was even stronger in the 1800s. Her father wanted to protect his children from antisemitism by hiding their heritage.

As she grew, it became clear that Hensel was a brilliant student of music. By the time she was thirteen, she had memorised and performed all twenty-four preludes from J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier in front of an audience as a surprise for her father. Unfortunately, the next year, when Hensel was fourteen, her father was already discouraging her from making a career as a composer or performer. Even so, Hensel’s first composition, which she wrote later that year, was in honour of her father’s birthday. And in spite of his sexism, she kept on writing music at a terrific rate. She also played the piano at the musical parties her parents hosted, which started when she was about seventeen.

When it came to bringing her compositions to the world, Hensel received some help from her younger brother, Felix. In 1827, he was publishing some of his own compositions–but he agreed to include some of his sister’s to get around their father’s restrictions, because their father didn’t want Hensel to publish a single note. He did it again three years later in another collection.

However, this sometimes got a bit awkward for Felix. When he was visiting Queen Victoria of England, he asked if the queen, who was a talented singer, would perform one of his pieces for him. She was happy to do so, and selected her favourite–which was written by Hensel! It was a credit to Felix’s honesty that he confessed he hadn’t actually written the piece the queen had sung. He then asked if she’d be willing to perform something he’d actually written himself!

Hensel married a court painter when she was twenty-four, and she actually wrote her own processional for the wedding (a piece to be played when the wedding party enters the church). However, there was a bit of a problem with the recessional–her brother was meant to have written the piece for when she left the church, but he ran out of time. When Hensel heard at the wedding rehearsal the day before that he wasn’t going to be able to finish the music, she promptly sat down, ignored her family and friends, and dashed off a piece in three-and-a-half hours!

After her marriage, it became very hard for Hensel to find time to compose and practice her music. Although her husband was supportive of her–even making sure she had time to play the piano at least a little every day–there was simply too many expectations for women of that time for her to manage. Still, she did her best to keep music in her life: she started up the musical parties her parents had hosted in her own home. She organised which music would be played when for them, composed music of her own, performed, and conducted. She also started a choir to perform during the gatherings, which she conducted and accompanied on the piano. Hensel’s musical gatherings became extremely popular and attracted more than a few famous composers looking for an invitation–including previously featured composer Clara Schumann!

In 1839, Hensel got the chance to fulfill one of her biggest dreams: she and her family spent the entire year travelling throughout Italy. And while she was there, she finally was able to perform for other famous musicians of her day and receive the respect she deserved.

Though Hensel experienced a fairly strong case of composer’s block when she was in her late twenties, by the time she was thirty, her confidence had come back enough to consider publishing some of her music. Unfortunately, her younger brother Felix, who had helped her when they were both younger, had let society and his father’s opinions shape his ideas about the role of women in music. Instead of helping her again, he was against Hensel sharing her music with the world. Fortunately for the world, Hensel ignored him and published some of her music, which became so popular that Felix was forced to admit he was wrong.

Hensel never did get the opportunity to publish all the music she had written–and she had written a lot: over 450 works! But more and more people have heard of her these days, and music by her is being discovered all the time. I can only hope that one day, all of Hensel’s music will be easy to find and her name will be well known by all fans of classical music, not just History Hunters.

Here’s “September: At the River” from Hensel’s Das Jahr (The Year), considered her “most important piano work” (

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: A Life of Music within Domestic Limits by Eugene Gates
Fanny Hensel born Mendelssohn at
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel at The Library of Congress’ Performing Arts Encyclopedia
Fanny Mendelssohn at the Encyclopædia Britannica
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel at
Image source: Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel – Nocturne en sol mineur

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

History Hunt: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

This week, we’re bouncing back to Britain and forward a decade to meet still another composer who succeeded in spite of constant prejudice: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Coleridge-Taylor was born on August 15, 1875. (His name was originally Samuel Coleridge Taylor, but later in his life, when a publisher made a typo, he liked the look of Coleridge-Taylor so much, he kept it!) His father had been studying medicine in England, but not long after Coleridge-Taylor’s birth, he returned to his home of Sierra Leone. It was too difficult for him to work in England: few people in those days wanted to be treated by a Black doctor, no matter how skilled he was.

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone, home of Coleridge-Taylor’s father.

Coleridge-Taylor and his mother, who was white, stayed behind in England, and not long after he was born, his mother moved to Croydon.

It was here that Coleridge-Taylor’s good fortune began. While he had been born in one of the poorest areas of London, Croydon was a much better place to grow up for a young man–especially since this was where he began taking his first music lessons. His first music teacher was his grandfather, Benjamin Holmans, who taught him the basics of how to play the violin; when he was five, Joseph Beckwith started giving him formal lessons. He was also taught by Colonel Herbert A. Walters, whose choir he later joined when he was ten years old.

In addition to singing and playing the violin, Coleridge-Taylor was also a pianist. When he was fourteen, he finally managed to save up for a very cheap piano. It wasn’t much, but at least now he had an instrument to play on. Though it wasn’t his main instrument by any means, he kept up his practice all the same.

When Coleridge-Taylor was just fifteen, Colonel Walters introduced him to the head of the Royal College of Music, which was at the time a brand new music school. Luckily for him, he won a scholarship that made it possible for him to attend and he was soon going to school with students who would become some of the best known British composers of the late 19th and early 20th century.

His original intent, when he first started going to the school, was to study the violin. However, Coleridge-Taylor soon found his calling: composition. While he was still a violin student, he published his first composition, Te Deum. The next year, in honour of Colonel Walters, he published In Thee, O Lord, the first in a series of compositions. When he was seventeen, he officially became a composition student. Within a year, his works were being performed; within two, he was winning prizes. He also started conducting the Croydon Conservatory Orchestra in his hometown. It was a brave step: Coleridge-Taylor was known to be shy–so shy, in fact, that he might actually have hidden from everyone after the first performance of his compositions!

Still, even as he was being recognised for his tremendous talent, Coleridge-Taylor was facing the same racism and bullying that had been a part of his life since he was a schoolboy (and that would continue for the rest of his life). But, at the Royal College of Music, he was lucky enough to have friends to stand by his side. As Mike Phillips of the British Library Online reports:

“There is a typical and well-established story of his time at the RCM when [Coleridge-Taylor’s composition teacher,] Stanford, overhearing another student deliver a racial insult, rounded on the culprit and told him that Coleridge-Taylor had “more music in his little finger” than the other student had in “his whole body”.”

In addition to being shy as a young man, Coleridge-Taylor seems to have also held himself to high standards. Shortly after his graduation, he tried to burn a composition that his teacher hadn’t liked. Luckily for the musical world, a close friend of his grabbed it and saved it!

Fame as a composer found Coleridge-Taylor quickly: he was only twenty-three when he came into the spotlight. First came his Ballade in A Minor, which was a huge success at its debut and when it was performed at the prestigious Crystal Palace. Almost immediately afterward came an even greater success–Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. Coleridge-Taylor used the white poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” as a foundation for his music. The poem was very popular at the time, even if it was a very inaccurate depiction of First Nations legends.

The British public as a whole loved Coleridge-Taylor’s composition–for some time, it rivalled Handel’s Messiah in popularity! Famous composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan), though he was very ill at the time, refused to miss its debut, saying, “I’m coming to hear your music to-night even if I have to be carried.” (Phillips)

The next year was a busy one for Coleridge-Taylor. With the success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the Royal Choral Society asked Coleridge-Taylor to compose a sequel, which he did within the year. He was also married to his sweetheart, Jessie Fleetwood-Walmisely, a pianist who was one of his schoolmates at the Royal College of Music.

Over the following years, Coleridge-Taylor was kept very busy. He composed, conducted, lectured on music, taught lessons, helped organise the first Pan-African Conference in London, started a newspaper with a friend (The African & Orient Review)–and became a father! He also started funding the Croydon Symphony Orchestra out of his own pocket when it ran out of money.

He had the opportunity to tour the United States three times, where he was extremely popular. In fact, the group that invited him in the first place was the Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society! He even got to meet President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House! And while racism in the United States during that time was an even bigger problem than in the United Kingdom, while Coleridge-Taylor was there, he was actually “allowed” to conduct white orchestras–something that was normally unheard of.

In spite of Coleridge-Taylor’s incredible popularity during his lifetime, it’s only recently that his music is being rediscovered. In fact, his opera, Thelma, was only found again in 2012 by Catherine Carr. I hope that in the years to come, we’ll start hearing more and more of Coleridge-Taylor’s music once more.

Here’s the last movement of his Petite Suite de Concert, “La Tarantelle Frétillante” (The Wiggling Tarantella):

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) by Mike Phillips
Black Mahler: The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor on
A Note On Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Early Work at the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation website
“I want to be nothing in the world except what I am – a musician.” (Discovering ‘Thelma’, Coleridge-Taylor’s only opera) at the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation website
Royal College of Music at
The Song of Hiawatha at


Mary Anne à Beckett

History Hunt: Mary Anne à Beckett

I’m back on the hunt this week with another British composer with not all that much information available. In fact, my sources can’t even agree on the spelling of her name!

Mary Anne (or possibly Mary Ann) à Beckett was born Mary Ann(e) Glossop on April 29, 1815, in London, England. Her mother was a singer whose parents escaped the French Revolution and who sang under the name Madame Feron. Her father was in charge of a series of several theatres in England and Italy. Not much is known about à Beckett’s childhood, but we do know she stayed at a convent in Avignon, France for a reasonably long period, and that it was during her family’s time in Italy that she studied music.

à Beckett composed a variety of music throughout her life, including a dozen vocal pieces and three piano works, but she’s best remembered for the three operas she and her husband, Gilbert Abbott à Beckett, wrote together. Agnes Sorrel was her first, written when she was only twenty, and it was later followed by Little Red Riding Hood, and The Young Pretender. à Beckett composed the music for all three operas, while her husband wrote the libretto, or lyrics, for the first two and another writer named Mark Lemon wrote the libretto for the third. While à Beckett’s music was well liked and praised in reviews, her husband and Lemon didn’t fare so well: the libretto for Agnes Sorrel was described as “cold, dull and comfortless” and Lemon’s writing in The Young Pretender was called “as dreary a production as it is possible to imagine in any work professing to be a drama.” (Wikipedia) Yikes!

Though à Beckett was a conductor as well as a composer, it seems she was shy. She was offered the opportunity to conduct the first performance of Agnes Sorrel, but she turned it down. Later in her life, she published a collection called The Music Book, along with some of her fellow (male) British composers, and after that, as is so often the case with forgotten composers, she fades from history.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate any of à Beckett’s music in a readily available listening format. If any of my readers could lend me a hand, I’d be tremendously grateful!

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
A’Beckett, Mary Anne (1817 – 1863), composer on Grove Music Online
Mary Ann à Beckett at Victorian English Opera
Mary Anne à Beckett at Wikipedia

Chiquinha Gonzaga

History Hunt: Chiquinha Gonzaga

Sometimes History Hunting isn’t just about finding forgotten composers in your own music traditions: it can also involve hunting down the great musicians of other countries whose music isn’t well known in your own. This kind of History Hunting comes with its own challenges. Maybe there’s a lot of information out there about your chosen composer, but little of it in a language you speak.

That’s exactly what happened with me this week. I decided to learn more about a composer outside of North America and Europe, because if I limit myself, there are countless brilliant musicians I’ll never hear about. And so this week’s History Hunt is all about Chiquinha Gonzaga.

Chiquinha Gonzaga was born Francisca Edwiges Neves Gonzaga on October 17, 1847 in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. (“Chiquinha” is a Portuguese nickname for “Francisca.”)


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, birthplace of Chiquinha Gonzaga

Although there was a great deal of prejudice against women in Brazil at that time, Gonzaga received a very good education. What she loved best about what she learned was playing the piano. When she was only 16 and she married the husband chosen for her, making music was her favourite thing to do–even though her husband didn’t approve. When he bought a ship and insisted that Gonzaga accompany him on his trips for the government, he thought that would be the end of her music. Instead of giving up, though, Gonzaga sneaked a guitar on board and learned to play it!

Finally, her husband got fed up and told Gonzaga that she had to pick between her music and him. Gonzaga chose music, packed up, and left!

Even though her family was furious, Gonzaga made a lot of friends in the music community. She started attending musical events that were traditionally male-only, met Joaquim Callado, who would go on to become a famous flute player, and became the first woman to play in his band, “O Choro do Calado.”

Gonzaga published her first composition, “Atraente,” when she was 30, and met with terrific success. The next year, one of her polkas sold 2000 copies. It may not sound like much, but for that time, it was an incredible amount–twenty times what was usual for a composer!

Unfortunately, while Gonzaga’s popularity as a composer was growing, she still faced sexism. After seeing the revue (a bit like musical theatre) “O Rio De Janeiro em 1877,” Gonzaga thought she would try something similar. Her first revue, “Festa de São João,” wasn’t published for four years. When she wrote the music for another, the producer cancelled the whole thing because “everyone knew” women couldn’t write good music!

At 38, Gonzaga decided that being a terrific musician and a great composer wasn’t enough–she wanted to be a renowned conductor as well! Even though women weren’t supposed to conduct according to the rules of society at the time, that didn’t stop her. She conducted the brand-new work, A Corte na Roça, to great success, and from then on, she was unstoppable. She was hugely popular in Brazil and toured all over Europe, from Scotland to Italy.

Not only a great composer, conductor, and artist, Gonzaga was active politically and passionate about ending slavery in Brazil. She gave speeches and even sold her music door-to-door in order to be able to free a fellow musician. She was truly a remarkable woman.

Here’s an arrangement of “Atraente,” one of Gonzaga’s most well-known pieces:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (sources):
Chiquinha Gonzaga at
Chiquinha Gonzaga at
15 mulheres que mudaram o Brasil at MdeMulher (Portuguese). (Note: References to mature content are made in the link.)
Pop Culture Latin America!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle by Lisa Shaw and Stephanie Dennison
Chinquinha at
Image Source: