Handwashers’ Newsletter 4th October 2020

Ethnic Edition

AFRICAN SANCTUS Penny remembers singing an unusual work:

I’ve been looking through my choral archive again and remembered an occasion when Surbiton Oratorio Society broke out of its rather conventional norm in a big way. Our conductor announced in 1980 that we would be putting on a performance of African Sanctus by David Fanshawe. ‘What,’ we said, ‘is that?’ When he explained that a pre-recorded tape was involved, we thought he had completely lost the plot, it was so unlike him.

African Sanctus appeared in 1972. The brief note in the 1980 programme reads ‘David Fanshawe, walking alone from Egypt to Uganda, recorded the music of fifty of its tribes and achieved so close a rapport with the local people that they allowed him to be present at their most sacred ceremonies and even, on occasion, danced and sang for him. The great adventure resulted in a major musical work. In it the tribal melodies are interwoven with the texts of the Latin Mass — an encounter of two cultures fused into a tightly knit unit of energy and praise — communicating a message of love and peace and faith in one God.’,

The choir set about getting to grips with this unusual work, and we were appalled when our conductor abruptly resigned in the middle of rehearsals. Consternation — would we have to abandon this most exciting project?

Happily the situation was saved by a dynamic young ‘guest’ conductor who pulled us through to a performance which was thrilling to do, all the more so because David Fanshawe came along, introduced the work personally, and at the end pelted the choir with flowers!

A footnote: that ‘guest’ conductor, Robin Page (No relation. Ed.) took the choir on. It is now Kingston Choral Society.

Recognise anyone?

Here is the African Sanctus performed by the Ambrosian Singers:



It seems appropriate at this time to remember a talented black English composer whose Hiawatha cantatas were, at one time, performed by many choral societies. The son of a Sierra Leone doctor and an English mother, Samuel was born in London in 1875. At that time, London was no place for a black doctor to build a practice and his father returned to Africa leaving his wife, with the baby Samuel, destitute.

Samuel showed musical promise as a choirboy in a local church and was taken under the wing of one of the choirmen who paid for the boy’s violin lessons and helped him to enter the Royal College of Music in 1890. There he studied composition and impressed his tutor, C V Stanford, winning a scholarship and several prizes.

After leaving RCM Coleridge-Taylor was supported by August Jaeger aka ‘Nimrod’ (right) at Novellos who brought him to the attention of his close friend, Edward Elgar. They persuaded Herbert Brewer, organist at Gloucester Cathedral, to give the young composer’s work a place in the 1898 Three Choirs Festival.

Coleridge-Taylor used Longfellow’s unusual poem about Native Americans to compose the choral cantatas, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (first performed at SCM under Stanford’s baton 1898), The Death of Minnehaha (1899) and Hiawatha’s Departure (1900). He admitted that he was attracted by the ‘funny names’.

Travelling several times in America, Coleridge-Taylor, was taken to heart by African Americans and Native Americans. His stated life’s mission was ‘establishing the dignity of the black man’.

In all 127 of his works were published but, in those days before royalties were paid to composers, Coleridge-Taylor struggled to support his English wife and two children, so he took on lots of teaching. Overwork probably contributed to his death in 1912 aged 37.

That was not the end of Coleridge-Taylor’s legacy to music. Mindful of the destitution that his early death brought to his young family, Jaeger, Elgar and others campaigned for royalties to be paid to composers and their dependents culminating in the founding of the Performing Rights Society in 1914.

The three Hiawatha cantatas were often performed by choral societies but went out of fashion before the end of the 20th Century. However, Lorna and I sang two of them some years ago and I particularly remember singing about Pau Puk Keewis, the great dancer; which wasn’t surprising as his deer-skin trousers were held together with porcupine quills! You are invited to read this leaflet which I prepared for that concert: Samuel C-T Leaflet

Listen to Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S05Jd6iH0nI


Those of us who went to Warwick’s Coffee Concert yesterday were enthralled by superb playing by him and Lawrence and the wonderful experience of being at a live concert after so long. Minchinhampton Church is an airy, uncluttered space where we sat in family bubbles at least 2m apart. The chairs were cleaned before and after, hand gel was everywhere and everyone wore masks except a few who wore visors. We felt totally protected!

These are the next concerts:

November 7 – James Gilchrist sings music by Brahms, Spohr and Prince Albert
December 5 – Baroque Chamber Music by Couperin, Telemann, Bach and Rameau performed by Jonathan Morgan (flute), David Hatcher (viola da gamba) and Warwick Cole (harpsichord)

Entry is free but, to comply with current Track-and-Trace regulations, you will need to reserve a free ticket by using the appropriate links above and you are encouraged to donate generously to the retiring collection in support of these freelance musicians.


Surprisingly perhaps, after taking all those Covid tests last week, Sonia has spotted this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAkGG4mCiX0 and then David and Jilly found it as they were probably recovering from another wacky wedding.


Ginny asks why it’s illegal for 30 children to stand side by side to feed the ducks when 30 men are allowed to stand side by side to shoot them?


Please help to keep these Handwashers’ Newsletters going by sending contributions to timp470@btinternet.com . Surely those who haven’t yet contributed must have some memorable musical stories and it doesn’t take long to type them; we’ll find pictures and links. Thank you to those who have contributed but let’s have more as I’m fast running out of ideas! Ed.