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Sumptuous Was the Feast

45 minutes
First broadcast:
Saturday 27 October 2012

'Hiawatha' in the Royal Albert Hall was one of the entertainment phenomena of the 1920s and 30s in London. For two weeks each summer the hall was brimful for the dramatisation of black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's cantata trilogy: 'Hiawatha's Wedding Feast', 'The Death of Minnehaha' and 'Hiawatha's Departure' - collectively known as 'The Song of Hiawatha'. Hundreds of members of the giant Royal Choral Society swamped the arena (aka the tribal encampment) dressed in home-made native American costumes. A vast backcloth, depicting mountains and forests, obscured the Albert Hall's giant organ. Wigwams invaded the stage, where the principal singers (many of the best known British stars of the day) did their stuff. And the bulk of the performances was directed by Dr Malcolm Sargent, matinee idol in the making.

At the hundredth anniversary of Coleridge-Taylor's death, Andrew Green's Sumptuous Was The Feast' seeks out memories from those who appeared in the Albert Hall productions and those who attended them. Kath Marshall recalls the tribal chants of an authentic Mohawk chief. Rosemary Woodhouse crept onto the stage to solve the mystery of just how Hiawatha's canoe drifted off-stage as it departed for the Hereafter.

But this is no mere trip down memory lane. Andrew Green investigates the popularity of Longfellow's poem 'The Song of Hiawatha' on both sides of the Atlantic. He examines how Coleridge-Taylor was idolised by the black community in the USA as a role model. And has Hiawatha obscured the composer's wider output?

'Sumptuous Was The Feast' details other performances of 'Hiawatha' from Scarborough to Melbourne, Australia...before the craze died after the Second World War. But could hordes of braves and squaws again fill the arena of the Albert Hall?


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