It’s been 2 weeks since I received my copies of the (out-of-print) International Dictionary of Black Composers, and I have been reading a few entries every day. The book was edited by the late Helen Walker-Hill, musicologist and wife of composer George Walker. It is an extensive two volume collection of composers spanning centuries, whose music should be celebrated more. Unfortunately so much of this music was not performed in our era of easy-to-access recordings, and it is difficult to find musical examples of these composers’ works.
One such example is that of Avril (born Gwendolen) Coleridge-Taylor (1903-1998), daughter of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. (He also had a son, Hiawatha.) Her innate musical ability gave her an especially close relationship with her father, until his death when she was nine years old. She briefly attended the Guildhall School of Music and wrote her first composition at age 12. At 15 she attended the Trinity College of Music, studying composition, piano and voice. Her early works show evidence of her collaborations during those years both with her brother and flutist Joseph Slater; several works for flute and piano and popular songs for voice are from this period.
It was after her first marriage ended that she changed her name to Avril, while working on her first orchestral work, “To April.” This was performed in 1931 and marked her first appearance as a conductor, an amazing feat for any young woman at the time. Her formal conducting debut was at Royal Albert Hall 2 years later. She later became the first female conductor of the H.M.S. Royal Marines and a frequent guest with the BBC and London Symphony Orchestras. In 1952 her tour to South Africa stretched into a five year residency, but when the government there learned of her black heritage, she was not allowed to work as a composer or conductor.
Her compositions are for orchestra, solo instrument and orchestra, choir and orchestra, solo instrument and piano (most often flute or violin, but also cello), solo piano and harpsichord, and chamber works. There is an especially intriguing one titled “God’s Remembrance” for soprano, harp, violin, viola, and cello. At the time of composition, they were being commissioned and performed by both regional and large ensembles of the time: Boston Symphony, BBC Orchestra, as well as the Coleridge-Taylor Symphony Orchestra (which grew out of her founding the Coleridge-Taylor Musical Society with her second husband) and the Malcolm Sargent Symphony Orchestra which she also founded. It is difficult to find any recording of these works, let alone the music. Harmonic analysis of a few of the works in the International Dictionary of Black Composers is intriguing but frustrating, like describing the plot of a book one wants to read but then can’t find. Around the time of her second divorce, she also started using the pseudonym “Peter Riley” under which the Fantasie for Violin and Piano was written in 1949, but the music remains elusive under either name.
It’s interesting to speculate on whether she used the pseudonym to escape the ramifications of being a Coleridge-Taylor, or being a black woman composer/conductor, or both.
Just revived during the pandemic by the Chineke! Orchestra is her Sussex Lanscape Op. 27. It is at the beginning of this concert filmed in Sept 2020 at the Southbank Royal Festival Hall. I hope more organizations unearth and perform her music. #blackcomposers #avrilcoleridgetaylor #womencomposers