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Passing Notes

A St. Mike's professor writes the book on 19th-century African-British composer


Published February 12, 2003 at 2:45 p.m.

After the St. Michael's College chorale sang at the Vatican in 1987, Pope John Paul II asked the conductor what kind of songs his Vermont group had just performed. "I told him they're called Negro Spirituals," remembers William Tortolano, an Italian- American who is still teaching at the Colchester school five years after his official retirement. The 73-year-old professor emeritus has long felt an affinity for the genre of music that intrigued the pontiff that day. Tortolano's new book, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Anglo-Black Composer, 1875-1912, is further evidence of his cross-cultural inclinations.

Once celebrated in his native England and in the United States, Coleridge-Taylor -- his name an intentional twist on that of British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge -- later fell out of vogue. In the biography, which includes an analysis of the musician's work, Tortolano describes him as "a very popular and important composer during his short lifetime." His most famous work, a musical adaptation of Longfellow's Hiawatha, was as famous in Coleridge-Taylor's era as Handel's Messiah.

The composer's notoriety diminished over the years, as more avant-garde classical artists like Stravinsky captured the public imagination. When Tortolano began his initial research, Coleridge-Taylor had dipped below the radar. But that started to change in 1977, when Tortolano published the first biographical examination of Coleridge-Taylor. It was a less detailed account of the composer, who has enjoyed an even more dazzling posthumous revival in recent years. There are now at least two dozen CDs of his music on the market.

"He's considered a father of the Harlem Renaissance," Tortolano says. "He is the world's most renowned composer of African descent."

The son of a physician from Sierra Leone and a white working-class mother, Coleridge-Taylor knew the complexities of race. He was an early symbol of black pride. "The composer wanted to serve Negro folk music," Tortolano writes. "He composed a provocative ethnic repertoire..."

In doing so, Coleridge-Taylor, who had studied at the Royal College of Music, incorporated these traditional melodies in classical forms. The artistry of Africa and black America was reflected in many of the symphonies, chamber pieces and other works by this young man who had grown up singing in church choirs.

Tortolano -- raised in Providence, Rhode Island -- was also a prodigy. "Music must be in my genes," he suggests. "My parents loved opera. At 8, I was a boy soprano in choirs and took piano lessons."

When Tortolano was a teenager, organ superseded piano as his primary instrument. "I loved church music," he says. "It's a great heritage."

It was also in those years that Tortolano first became aware of Coleridge-Taylor. "I knew an elderly Franciscan priest who had been his classmate and he gave me a copy of Hiawatha," he recalls. "I immediately appreciated his craftsmanship."

With a 1953 bachelor's degree in music from Boston University, Tortolano found a job in the parochial schools of Niagara Falls, New York, and supplemented his income as a church organist. But six years later, he was back in Beantown for graduate work at the New England Conserva-tory. That's where he met his wife, singer Martha Kane. They married in 1960.

When his two-year educational program was completed, Tortolano stayed on at the conservatory as assistant choral director. "It was a wonderful opportunity," he recounts. "We sang with the Boston Symphony."

St. Michael's beckoned. Tortolano began teaching there while also commuting once a week to the University of Montreal, where he was earning his doctorate in music. At the same time, he was carving out a new role for himself in Vermont.

"There was no fine arts department at St. Mike's when I started," Tortolano says of his introduction to the campus. "I founded it in 1964 and was the first chairperson, a position I held from 1964 to 1972."

While teaching music, he began to direct the glee club -- which became the chorale a few years after women were admitted to the Catholic bastion in 1972. Both groups toured Europe. In addition to that performance for the Pope, Tortolano brought his choral groups to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and Cambridge University in England.

Tortolano liked Cambridge so much, in fact, that he became a visiting fellow there on sabbaticals in 1969, 1974 and 1995. During those interludes he was able to search for sources on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor -- detective work that led to his first book about the composer-conductor.

The project proved challenging. Tortolano had trouble finding first-hand personal recollections, even after communicating with Coleridge-Taylor's two grown children -- both of whom were quite young when their father died of pneumonia at age 37.

Luckily for Tortolano's research, Coleridge-Taylor left behind other documentation when he visited these shores three times between 1904 and 1910. The new book benefits from articles about him that were never published or long out-of-print, as well as material from Yale University dating back to the Brit's sojourn in Litchfield, Connecticut.

Coleridge-Taylor's 1897 Hiawatha trilogy of songs, the late-19th-century equivalent of a smash hit, demonstrated a fascination with the New World. African-American activist W.E.B. DuBois' landmark essay collection, The Souls of Black Folks, inspired him to use indigenous music in many of his classical compositions.

Who could resist DuBois' impassioned words? "The Negro folk song -- the rhythmic cry of the slave -- stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas."

Generations of jazz, blues and rock 'n' roll artists would probably agree. As a man transformed by the sounds of this land, Coleridge-Taylor seems to have cross-pollinated a bit. "He became an icon to American composers," Tortolano suggests. "Duke Ellington cited him in some of his biographies."

More contemporary music has also come into Tortolano's life through his presidency of the musician's union in Vermont. During his eight-year reign, he became acquainted with Phish. "I treasure a signed photograph of them," he confides, "even though they're not my cup of tea."

Since his retirement, Tortolano has continued teaching part-time. But he no longer limits himself to music. His wide-ranging offerings include courses in 20th-century literature, the liturgical arts of the Judeo-Christian tradition and Canadian history.

On weekends, he works as a freelance substitute organist at various places of worship. "Name the denomination and I've played there," he says.

In his continuing dedication to older artistic traditions, Tortolano unearths little-known compositions. The shelves of his tiny office in the college library are filled with stacks and stacks of the sheet music he edits. "I find obscure work in the public domain and resurrect it so it can be performed," he explains, randomly pointing to a late 16th-century composition by some largely forgotten fellow named Adam Gumpeltzheimer. "I've had about 40 or 50 editions like this, mainly Renaissance music, published in the last 30 years."

Tortolano wrote a standard reference tome, Original Music for Men's Voices, that came out in 1978. In the early 1980s, he also translated a book on Gregorian chants from Italian and French.

The three Tortolano children have followed in their parents' footsteps. "They're all in the music business and they all married musicians," he points out. "People like us can't live without it. This is a sacred calling."