Classical Album of the Week: The Catalyst Quartet Uncovers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Apr 19, 2021

April 19, 2021. The Grammy-winning Catalyst Quartet uncovers music and the stories of the people who wrote it in its new recording series, UNCOVERED. The first volume focuses on music by late 19th-century English composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

The Catalyst Quartet, founded in 2010 by the Sphinx Organization, aims to "reimagine" the classical music experience. "Sometimes classical music is presented like a museum piece," says violist Paul Laraia. "We want to make sure everything we do has relevance to today," and so the ensemble's programs reach out to a diverse audience, with diverse repertoire.

The Catalyst Quartet, presented by Music at Bunker Hill, performs music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor LIVE in person at The Music Barn in Mullica Hill, NJ on Saturday, April 24th at 2:30 PM. Details and ticket info here!

The Catalyst Quartet
Credit Ricardo Quiñones

This new project, Uncovered, featuring music of composers who have been overlooked because of race or gender, begins with an album of music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Black English composer born in the late 19th century, the child of an English mother and an African father from Sierra Leone.

Ironically, Coleridge-Taylor, who was born in 1875 and died suddenly at the age of 37, was acclaimed during his short lifetime.  Raised in England, he started violin at 5, joined the Royal College of Music at 15, and at 23, had a triumphant premiere of his cantata, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, set to the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He toured the U.S., where he visited The White House at the invitation of President Teddy Roosevelt. He was so successful, the story goes, that New York musicians in the early 1900s began referring to him as "The Black Mahler;" others are said to have called him "The Black Dvorak." 

And while Hiawatha's Wedding Feast remains familiar to many choral ensembles and you may recognize his melodies such as Deep River, much of his over 80 compositions, including operas, ballet music, songs, a symphony, violin concerto and chamber music are unknown today.  

Volume 1: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor includes one quartet, and two quintets, one featuring pianist Stewart Goodyear, and one with clarinetist Anthony McGill.

Here's a trailer for the project:

I met with Paul, who was Zooming in from a New York City venue during a rehearsal break.

Track list:

Quintet in G minor for piano and strings, Catalyst Quartet with pianist Stewart Goodyear.

Fantasiestucke, Catalyst Quartet

Quintet in F Sharp Minor for clarinet and strings, Catalyst Quartet with clarinetist Anthony McGill

The Music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

While he mastered Western European classical music conventions (evident in the chamber music on this album), he was also intrigued by African music and American spirituals, which he integrated into some of his other works, says Laraia, "the way Brahms had with Hungarian music and Dvorak with Bohemian music."

The influence of spirituals is not explicit on this album of early works, "for he was really trying to create perfectly crafted works in the European model," says Laraia. "But if you listen to the second movement of the clarinet Quintet, you can definitely you can definitely feel that vibe."

Laraia says the chamber music they've chosen for the album is "extremely fun to play" "There is a soulful, yet folksy underpinning to many of these works and The Humoresque definitely sticks out to me, which is the third movement of the Fantasiestucke. It has so much character, it has charm, it's virtuosic. The viola part -- it's almost like a perpetual motion, so even though it may not be the main line, it's always infusing the music with character and with content."

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor seemed an ideal composer to launch the series, Uncovered. "It's such gorgeous romantic music," says Laraia; likening the sound to music of Dvorak, Elgar, and Brahms. "This language we knew would be a really powerful way to kick off the message that the music of these composers is absolutely part of the canon."

Recording the quintets with pianist Stewart Goodyear and clarinetist Anthony McGill was extremely exciting, says Laraia. "That's another reason we wanted to begin with this album, because we knew we were going to have very strong collaborators with Stewart and Anthony."