Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet

Stephen Williamson, clarinet

Chen String Quartet

Robert Chen and Laura Park Chen, violins

Beatrice Chen, viola

Noah Chen, cello

August 11, 2020

Rush Hour Concerts

Robbie Ellis, host


Samuel Coleridge-Taylor – Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor, Op. 10

I. Allegro energico

II. Larghetto affettuoso

III. Scherzo

IV. Finale


W.A. Mozart – Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 381

II. Larghetto

Stephen Williamson is the principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Riccardo Muti.  Mr. Williamson was formerly the principal clarinetist of both the New York Philharmonic (2013-14) as well the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (2003-11).  In addition, he has been a frequent guest principal clarinetist with the Saito Kinen Festival Orchestra in Japan under Seiji Ozawa.

Mr. Williamson is currently a faculty member of DePaul University in Chicago, IL.  He has served on the faculty at Columbia University and the Mannes College of Music in New York City, as well as at the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan.  He has recorded for the Sony Classics, Telarc, CRI, BMG, Naxos and Decca labels and can be heard on numerous film soundtracks.  Mr. Williamson was a featured soloist with the CSO under the baton of John Williams, recording his Oscar-nominated score for Steven Spielberg’s film, “Lincoln.”    

An avid soloist and chamber musician, Mr. Williamson has performed extensively in the United States, Europe and Asia.  He has collaborated with such artists as: James Levine, Yo-Yo Ma, Mitsuko Uchida, Jeffrey Kahane, Anne Marie McDermott, Emanuel Ax, Meliora Winds, Aspen, Dorian and Sylvan Wind Quintets; Brentano, American, Jasper, Brasilia and Dover String Quartets. Past concerto performances of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto are with the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra in Japan (2011), the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in Carnegie Hall under conductor Fabio Luisi (2012) as well as with the CSO and Maestro Riccardo Muti in February and June, 2016. Mr. Williamson recently performed the Mozart Concerto with the CSO and Maestro Muti in five performances on their west coast tour of California. In the upcoming CSO (2020-21) season, he will be performing the Copland Concerto and the Bernstein Prelude, Fugue and Riffs with Maestro Bramwell Tovey. 

He received his Bachelor’s degree and Performer’s Certificate from the Eastman School of Music, and his Master’s degree from the Juilliard School. As a Fulbright Scholar, he furthered his studies at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin, where he collaborated with various members of the Berlin Philharmonic. His past teachers include Peter Rieckhoff, Charles Neidich, Kenneth Grant and Michael Webster.  Mr. Williamson was the grand prize winner of the 1994 Boosey & Hawkes/Buffet Crampon First Annual North American Clarinet Competition.

Other past awards include the Concert Artists Guild Competition as well as the Coleman International Chamber Music Competition. Mr. Williamson recently was selected to adjudicate for the XVI International Tchaikovsky Competition. This was the first time that woodwinds and brass were added to the competition.

A long-time Selmer-Paris and Vandoren Artist, Mr. Williamson currently plays Selmer Signature clarinets and uses Vandoren traditional reeds with a James Pyne “Williamson” model mouthpiece. He resides in Wilmette, IL with his wife Jill, sons Ryan, Connor and Matthew.

The Chen String Quartet has been playing together for 6 years. Committed to community outreach, they play at retirement homes and in hospitals regularly in the Chicago area. Robert Chen has been concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1999. Laura Chen is a former member of the first violin section of both Lyric Opera and Grant Park Symphony. Beatrice Chen is a viola student at The Curtis Institute of Music. Noah Chen is a student of Clara Kim at Juilliard Pre college.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1864-1935)

Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor, Op. 10 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born to an English mother and a physician father from Sierra Leone, Africa. Before Samuel’s birth, his father was running a medical practice but financially suffering due to patients’ prejudice against a black doctor being in charge. This pushed him to return to Africa leaving his unborn son and wife behind. Samuel’s parents were never married but he would grow up with his 18 year-old mother and maternal grandfather.

At the age of 5, Samuel would begin violin lessons with his grandfather. Despite the troubled neighborhood, Samuel would thrive in a household that was in good financial standing, giving him a comfortable, nurturing upbringing. Though his home life was healthy, he was definitely aware of the color of his skin, receiving troubling and racist nicknames while in grade school.

In 1890 he would leave his home and school to enroll on scholarship at the Royal College of Music (RCM). He would start his studies as a violinist but would soon switch to studying composition with the acclaimed Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. While at RCM, Samuel was among other young talents such as Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. In fact, they would perform on some of the premieres of Samuel’s works.

At the age of 21, Samuel met African-American author Paul Luarence Dunbar, setting off a series of collaborations between the two. A few years later, Samuel would receive his first commission via Edward Elgar, who described Samuel as “the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men”. Despite receiving acclaim after this and many more commissions and well received performances, Samuel would need to conduct and teach in order to make a living.

At the age of 24, Samuel would marry Jessie Sarah Fleetwood Walmisley, who was a student alongside him at RCM. They would have a son and daughter over the next 4 years, who would both go on to have musical careers. With his wife being white, they would both receive racial harassment and targeted abuse. Many of his works would be seen to parallel the African-American experience, inspiring and inviting new audiences to his portfolio. Coleridge-Taylor would preface in his Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk music, Dvorak for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro melodies.” After reading the works of W.E.B. Du Bois, Coleridge-Taylor would become engaged with the issues of race and his own African background. In 1900 he would attend the first Pan-African conference in London, joining a circle of black activists.

Well known in America, a group of black singers founded the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society in 1901 in Washington D.C. He would visit the USA for the first time three years later, being received with great acclaim. On the first tour, he would conduct the US Marines Band and on his 1910 tour he would conduct both exclusively white orchestras and all African-American orchestras. For him to conduct both the Marine Band and exclusively white orchestras at this time was unprecedented. He would also be invited and meet President Theodore Roosevelt during his first tour, an honor truly unheard of for a black man at the time.

Just a few weeks after his 37th birthday, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor collapsed on his way to the train station. He was able to make it home and passed away a few days later from acute pneumonia. His music would continue to be performed and praised for the next few decades but, like many things after World War II, his music disappeared from the canon. Thankfully like a lot of others lost, we are seeing a resurrection of his music due to a thirst for voices long forgotten.

 Program Notes:

In 1891, Johannes Brahms wrote his infamous Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, leaving an impossible standard for others to amount to. This challenge was accepted by a 19 year-old Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who furiously worked all summer on his own Clarinet Quintet after hearing Brahms’ work. Also prompting his challenge was his composition teacher, Stanford, adding the challenge to not show the influence of Brahms in his work. Upon receiving the piece, Stanford responded with a ‘you’ve done it, me boy!’, foreshadowing the reception to come.

The first movement titled Allegro energico, showcases everyone equally, proving it is not simply a clarinet concerto. The following movements’ themes encapsulated the feeling of a folk song, being free and beautiful, including irregular phrase-length and frequently muting the strings to create the most deeply sensible music. The lively Scherzo houses a double time-signature of 3/4 9/8 creating fun interplay leading to sudden dynamic contrasts followed by a more tender trio, with a melody showing the influence of Dvorak. The finale is just that, the melody incorporating the enjoyable Scotch snap and leading to a bold development section. There is one last moment reminiscent of the larghetto followed by a Vivace coda ending in a manner that can’t help but bring to mind the end of Dvorak’s ‘American’ Quartet.

Notes by Ashley Ertz

Fast Facts:

  • Won the Lesley Alexander composition prize two years running in 1895 and 1896
  • In 1911 his final commision, his Violin Concerto would go down with the Titanic on its way to the US premiere. One movement was ironically based on a spiritual titled Keep Me From Sinking Down
  • Left behind his wife, son and daughter upon his untimely death

The Rush Hour Concerts series is supported in part by awards from the National Endowment for the Arts

and the Illinois Arts Council Agency.

Don’t miss Kenneth Olsen and Kuang-Hao Huang

next week on

Rush Hour Concerts!

Tuesday August 18, 5:45pm

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