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Past Exhibition of the Month - September 2012

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Snapshot of the Royal Albert Hall, June 1935.

Snapshot of the Royal Albert Hall, June 1935.

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A dramatised version of Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha (1898-1900) by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). Text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Produced by T.C.Fairbairn.

For fourteen years between 1924 and 1939 this spectacular production of Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha was an essential attraction of the London summer season. First mounted as a fund-raising exercise for the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the run of eight performances in May 1924 was so successful that Fairbairn re-booked the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal Choral Society for a fortnight the following year - and then, after a two-year gap, every year until 1939. From 1925 the cast ran to 1000 performers, including 200 dancers, and Fairbairn's skill in handling these vast forces and imaginative use of the hall's huge arena have passed into history; at the time it drew comparison with the work of Max Reinhardt.

In addition to the Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha (which itself comprised three separately composed cantatas: Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, The Death of Minnehaha and Hiawatha's Departure), Fairbairn was able to draw on two further independent works by Coleridge-Taylor: the Overture to the Song of Hiawatha (1899) and a Hiawatha ballet (1912), completed only in piano score and in 1924 still awaiting performance. This resulted in some adaptation of the choral works, though these fell naturally into a three-act structure. Substantial ballet sequences were interpolated near the end of Act I and at the start of Act III, and most controversially Fairbairn added (from 1925) examples of authentic American-Indian folk music. The Mohawk baritone Os-Ke-Non-Ton was engaged to play 'The Medicine Man', and as such remained a star of the show until 1939.

In 1924 the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Choral Society were conducted by Eugene Goossens, assisted by H.L.Balfour and the composer's son Hiawatha Coleridge-Taylor. Thereafter the regular conductor was Dr (later Sir) Malcolm Sargent. The first choreographer, the Russian dancer Lydia Kyasht, was replaced in 1925 by Euphan MacLaren, whose dances then remained standard until 1939. (Miss MacLaren was also the choreographer for the one post-war revival, with almost entirely different forces, in 1953.) The original set and costume designer was the Australian artist Fred Leist, new costumes being commissioned in 1936.

Many leading oratorio singers appeared in the production, but particular mention should be made of two singers who became indelibly associated with their roles: the Australian baritone Harold Williams (1893-1978) as Hiawatha and the soprano Lilian Stiles-Allen (1899-1986) as his nurse Nokomis. Phyllis Bedells was leading dancer for seven seasons. The Royal Choral Society itself became the main beneficiary of the performances, claiming that they funded extra adventurous programming through the rest of the year.

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912).  Royal College of Music, London. Thomas Charles Fairbairn (1874-1978), producer.

Three of the four programme cover designs.  That by the Australian artist Fred Leist - the production's original designer - was the one most frequently used.  It was the image for the first and last seasons and for at least seven others in between.  Royal College of Music, London.

Coleridge-Taylor: Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha, Op.30.  First edition of the vocal score of the complete work.  London, 1900.  Royal College of Music, London. Coleridge-Taylor: Suite from the Hiawatha Ballet Music.  [Arranged and orchestrated by Percy E.Fletcher.]  Piano score.  London, 1919. Coleridge-Taylor: Minnehaha.  Suite from the Hiawatha Ballet Music.  [Arranged and orchestrated by Percy E.Fletcher.]  Piano score.  London, 1925.

Hiawatha Brian Coleridge-Taylor (1900-1980), the composer's son, who edited and conducted the ballet music for the 1924 season.  Royal College of Music, London. Synopsis from the 1925 programme. Euphan MacLaren, choreographer to the production from 1925.

Chief Os-Ke-Non-Ton singing at the Wedding Feast (Act I). The 'Heavenly Ballet' in Act I.  Myrtle Farquharson as Gitche Manito, the Great Spirit; Alison MacLaren and Errol Addison as the Lovers, 1934. The end of Act I - after the Totem Dance.  Chief Os-Ke-Non-Ton with Harold Williams as Hiawatha and Elsa Macfarlane (?) as Minnehaha.

The Spring Ballet at the beginning of Act III.  Hermione Darnborough and Errol Addison, 1936. Hermione Darnborough as Flora with Errol Addison in the Spring Ballet.  [1934?]. The penultimate scene in Act III - the arrival of the missionaries and the 'black-robed chief'.  T.C.Fairbairn can be seen at the back of this rehearsal photograph.

Anita Desmond as Spring in Act III.  Desmond was the first to sing this important soprano role in 1924 and in many subsequent seasons. Anita Desmond as Nokomis, 1925. Frank Webster as Chibiabos.  Webster sang this leading tenor role in 1925 and in subsequent seasons.

Aubrey Hitchins as the Spirit of Montezuma (the Young Chief) in the 'Heavenly Ballet' in Act I. Phyllis Bedells as the Spirit of the Indian Maiden with Leighton Lucas as the Young Chief in Act I. Harold Williams (?) as Hiawatha in Act II.

Henry Wendon in costume as Chibiabos, 1934. Dr Malcolm Sargent signing programmes, June 1935. Stanley Judson in costume as the Young Chief (Act I), 1936.

Both the Museum of Music History and the RCM's Centre for Performance History hold substantial collections on these famous performances. We have chosen to show a selection this month to commemorate the centenary of the composer's death. A display of material from the Centre of Performance History's important Samuel Coleridge-Taylor archive can be seen in the RCM Museum until the end of the year.