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Snapshot of the Royal Albert Hall, June 1935.

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Hiawatha at the Royal Albert Hall (1924-1939)

September 2012

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 FeastThe 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.

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.