The Classical Station’s interview with Luke Welch for Preview!

Interview with Luke Welch
by Bethany Tillerson (photo credit: Samantha Edwards)

Our guest for Preview! is Canadian pianist Luke Welch. His May 2023 release, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Piano Works, has gained significant recognition and is under consideration for a JUNO nomination.

KENNEDY: Luke, tell our listeners about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and his significance in classical music.

WELCH: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is a very important black British composer. He was born in 1875 and he was first exposed to music through his grandfather. His grandfather introduced him to the violin and was the first one he heard sing plantation songs or slave songs, I guess we would call them now. He kept playing the violin and got accepted to the Royal College of Music. It was around that time that he started to become more involved in composition, and that’s when his teacher started to realize that on top of his gifts as a violinist, he might actually have a significant future as a composer as well. The thing about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is that he has this sort of traditional European training in terms of classical music. He understands the rules in terms of structure and form, but the thing that made him particularly interested in composition was that he really wanted to focus on African and African-American music. So in terms of African music, that was more about the drums and rhythms and the histories and cultures and sights and sounds of the past. In terms of African-American music, that, of course, did include some slave songs, but it also involved the soul and the depth and the trials and tribulations that those people had gone through. So he really wanted to preserve a lot of these cultural idioms of both Africa and the United States from the Deep South, especially in terms of black people.

What really made him prominent as a composer, what really put him on the map, was his Songs of Hiawatha, a trilogy of cantatas. The first one was so successful that he was immediately asked to write the next one. The next one was another great hit, so he wrote the third one. The third one was relatively well received, but didn’t quite have the “oomph” that the first two did. So he actually crumpled it up, threw it in the fire, rewrote it, and it had the success of the first two. That became the big trilogy that a lot of people know and love. After he became a composer and a violinist, he was also a conductor as well. He conducted his own works, and it was during his three trips to North America that he became introduced to the orchestras and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. That’s where his nickname of the “African Mahler” came from. He was conducting one of the orchestras in New York, who absolutely were impressed beyond belief by his talents. That’s when they dubbed him the “African Mahler” because he was the best conductor since Mahler himself to conduct an orchestra. They meant it as a complete term of endearment.

The thing that I love about Coleridge-Taylor was that he wanted to use his platform, being so prominent as a black composer who was of the highest regard, to preserve and to uplift all of the things related to African-American and black culture. He identified as an Anglo-African himself with a Caucasian mother from England and a father from Sierra Leone. Culture was always a huge part of who he was, what he did, and what he was trying to achieve. In that way I consider him to be the sort of J.S. Bach of black composers, not necessarily in terms of the same level of talent in writing fugues, but more in terms of what he offered and how much he was able to influence other black composers such as Florence Price, Robert Nathaniel Dett, Harry T. Burleigh, and many, many others for years to come. He was the first and the biggest godfather of black music in the classical paradigm.

KENNEDY: Luke, what was the inspiration behind your fourth recording, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Piano Works?

WELCH: The inspiration behind this recording came from looking at the positive within the negative. When COVID hit and everything was shut down and we had no performances on the horizon, I started giving concerts from right here in my living room on Facebook Live featuring different composers for different eras. One month, I would do Beethoven, one month I would do Scarlatti, then I would do Bach and Chopin. After about 8 or 9 months or so, I was running low on ideas of what I could do. So I was thinking maybe I could start branching out into more obscure composers, like Joaquin Turina or Gabriel Fauré, but it didn’t quite feel like a right fit. I had written a blog called Life as a Black Classical Pianist a few months earlier, which had a huge impact and ended up going viral all over the world. I thought maybe I could take a look into some black composers. I found this book of four composers and it had Coleridge-Taylor and I knew that. So I played through some of the Coleridge-Taylor Three-Fours Valse Suites and loved them. I was like, “Oh, maybe I could turn this into a program.” That’s when the whole idea was born to do the recording. I thought maybe I could record it and then perform it later, which is exactly what I did.