Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Clarinet Quintet in F# Minor


Born in August 1875 in Holborn, London, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor started learning the violin at a young age. At first it was Coleridge-Taylor’s maternal grandfather that taught him until he saw his obvious abilities and paid for him to have professional lessons. At age 15, Coleridge-Taylor started studying at the Royal College of Music, it was here he changed from violin performance to composition. Whilst at RCM he was tutored by Charles Villiers Stanford. 

Straight out of conservatoire, Coleridge-Taylor became a busy working musician. He worked with the likes of Elgar and Villiers Stanford throughout his relatively short life. Critics described him as a “musical genius” and his music soon gained success over in the USA. He toured the USA three times and was met by President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. Coleridge-Taylor was particularly popular among African Americans, as much of his music sought to integrate African traditions with Western classical music.  


The Music

Composed in 1895, Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet was one of the composer’s first steps into chamber music. Written when he was just 20 years old, the quintet is a display of some of Coleridge-Taylor’s finest writing. Rave reviews came in from the London premiere in 1895, as well as more recent performances in the modern day. Many have said that this work is the product of an experienced composer, not a student. 


Movement I – Allegro energico 

Opening with a jaunty but forceful theme led by the cello, it is not long before the clarinet enters with a warm melodic addition to the mix. The strings are largely playing in syncopation throughout, with the viola adding pizzicato themes throughout. Coleridge-Taylor properly balances the voices in the ensemble without making it seem that it is all about the clarinet, because in truth all of the voices are of equal importance here. The 6/4 time signature allows the melody to be drawn out and flexible in how it is presented. The clarinet, although the most unique voice of the five, largely emphasises phrase endings and covers harmonies that the strings miss out. The relationship between the five voices is unified and the rich textures that Coleridge-Taylor extracts from them is so enjoyable. A reprise of the opening motif closes this movement off stylishly.


Movement II – Larghetto

Open-air style, the poignant second movement is led by a folk-inspired melody. The strings mute themselves for a majority of this movement, which makes way for certain voices to step forward into the spotlight. Coleridge-Taylor uses irregular phrase lengths to create a range of different effects during this relatively short movement. There is a deep sensibility within this movement which is perhaps why it has remained the most popular movement of the four. Coleridge-Taylor’s tender writing floats between the voices as parts of melody are sung out. The clarinet takes a melodic lead for a portion of the movement, with the rich and woody texture of the instrument pairing effectively with the muted strings. The movement concludes quietly, with good grace.


Movement III – Scherzo

The jaunty scherzo is initiated by the strings, the cello in particular taking the lead. After the rugged opening, the clarinet takes control during the lyrical central section. A sweeping melody takes hold as the strings accompanies with a pizzicato phrase. The jaunty opening statement returns at the end of the movement to close the movement with energy. 


Movement IV – Finale 

The finale movement starts with a driving accompaniment by the strings that lays the foundation for the clarinet to enter. The powerful melody played by the clarinet is then used by the ensemble as they play in unison, which creates a powerful statement. Coleridge-Taylor’s rich textures are showcased in this movement once more as the different voices create a truly warming concoction of sound. The jaunty central section hones back to the Scherzo, with irregular phrasing and syncopated themes spreading across the ensemble. Near the end of the finale a look back to the Larghetto movement occurs, with the sweeping reminiscence carrying the music forward. A burst of excitement closes this fruitful quintet.

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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