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Cataloguing Avril Coleridge-Taylor
Restoring the voice of an extraordinary, neglected composer
The first time I meet the Dashwood family, I’m recording a radio feature about composers including Avril Coleridge-Taylor. As Avril’s closest living relatives, I’ve come to interview them about her, to get a sense of who she was. They’ve also told me that they have some of her music — and while I’m curious to see it, I mostly assume that it will consist of personal copies of her manuscripts which are held at the Royal College of Music. After all, there are quite enough at the College to establish Avril as a composer of considerable merit.
What I had not expected to find was a treasure trove that adds around fifty additional compositions to Avril’s known corpus. When Helen Walker-Hill compiled her catalogue, there was no way that she could have known about the existence of these pieces — and they fill in a huge amount of Avril’s story, especially her early compositional life. There are still missing works from her early career — she mentioned a cello work called Memories in a newspaper article dated 1919, for example, and I have yet to locate a score for this (if you have a copy of this, please let me know!!). But the Dashwood collection gives us a considerable number of her early songs and solo piano works.
They show us that Avril emerged from a very young age with a remarkably developed, unique musical voice. The feel for harmony that is so distinctive about her late music is already present in the earliest songs. And she is clearly a composer who writes with the performer in mind. Moments that seem peculiar on the page, as if they are unfinished thoughts that lead nowhere, suddenly make sense when you work through them at the piano, adding in physical gestures and movement.
In addition, the material at the Dashwoods gives us a better-rounded picture of Avril’s personality. Her scores were bundled together alongside photographs, autobiographical snippets, music by her father Samuel, and two large press books containing clippings from across her career. The image that these present, in combination, is of an intensely complex woman. The press books are the work of someone proud of her achievements — she kept every mention, every notice, every review, and framed the photographs and letters which were most important to her. And yet her compositions are in complete disarray. Some pages are so damaged that I can’t make out what the composition is at all. Other works are split across multiple boxes and I have to piece them together by spreading out all the loose pages across the floor and figuring out which belong to one another. Even now, there are still pages of sketches that I’m trying to assign to finished works; they may yet turn out to be original compositions that add further to her catalogue. The manuscripts are in such a mess that they feel completely out of place in the neat, clean house where they now live. I wonder how much sadness and frustration Avril must have felt at the end of her life about the setbacks she had experienced, to have left so many of her scores like this.
This is made especially apparent by the difference in care given to her own manuscripts, and those by her father. The compositions of Samuel’s which she had in her possession are neatly labelled — the score for his Violin Concerto is bound and in an envelope marked ‘Guard with your life.’ There are few loose, unassigned pages with Samuel’s handwriting on. She evidently thought these were valuable and worth preserving, but her own were not. I don’t think this is because of any belief about the intrinsic value of her own work — just that it must have been extraordinarily disheartening to have tried for so long to interest people in her music and been cold-shouldered repeatedly. She was banned from work in apartheid South Africa because of her multiracial heritage. In the UK, records held by the BBC show that they had little interest in her music. Again and again, Avril tried to get the BBC to pay attention to her — as a composer, as a conductor, and as a singer. More often that not they rebuffed her, seeing her requests as irritating inconveniences. With these as her experiences of institutional attitudes, it’s unsurprising that she didn’t bother to preserve her scores especially carefully.
It was perhaps partly because of this lack of acceptance that she experimented so liberally with pseudonyms. She trialled the pseudonyms “Vivien Soames” for a song in 1939, and “Margaret Chapple” and “Nigel C. Rogers” for two 1923 songs. But these, it appears, were abandoned after a single use. It was “Peter Riley” that proved the most enduring. She composed many of her works under this name, including a Suite for String Orchestra, a Fantasie for violin and piano, and a number of piano pieces and songs. Like so many other women of her generation, adopting a male name was one route she tried in an attempt to gain acceptance. For Avril, though, her most significant name change was in the 1930s after her divorce from Harold Dashwood. She dropped her first name, “Gwendolen”, and started going by her middle name, “Avril”. As she tells it in her autobiography, this was her way of forging a new identity. ‘When the crash came it was total’, she wrote:
The end of a distressing illness was the advice of my doctor to separate and to begin a new life. During the period of trial separation […] I found the inspiration to compose again. […] I was staying with friends in Berkshire and was fortunate in finding a village hall where I could rent a piano for two or three hours a day. It was here I wrote my first work for orchestra. All this happened in the month of April. Part of the doctor’s psychological treatment to help me forget the past misery was that I should change my name, so I did — to Avril. My new composition bore the title To April. It was not meant to represent or to be an impression of the month, but an expression of the kind of new life I wished to lead.
As important as To April might have been to its composer, the piece received only a few performances in the early 1930s. It has not, to my knowledge, been performed widely since then, and certainly it has yet to be recorded.
So in the hope that it will facilitate further performances and recordings of Avril’s music, over the last year I have compiled a full catalogue of known works by Avril Coleridge-Taylor. The catalogue includes score locations, any known performance history, and orchestrations for orchestral works. It covers manuscripts held at the Dashwoods, at the Royal College of Music, and at the Bodleian Library. And in the interests of making her music more accessible, I’m making it available to download as a PDF here. Because the project of fully cataloguing her music is ongoing and scores are still turning up on occasion, the catalogue is still necessarily incomplete and I will update the PDF as and when new material comes to light. But it is, I hope, a starting point for everyone who wants to be able to perform this incredible music, and to find out more about Avril herself.
Full details about how to use the catalogue are in the PDF. If you would like help accessing the privately held scores by Avril, please contact me at leahbroad[at]hotmail.co.uk.