050: Paul Laurence Dunbar in England

Dunar as 1915 biog of C-T

From "Lyrics of Lowly Life" published in London 1897
From “Lyrics of Lowly Life” published in London 1897

Ohio-born Paul Dunbar’s poetry caught the attention of literary America in 1895 with William Dean Howell’s review of his Majors and Minors. Born in Dayton in June 1872 to ex-slave parents, Dunbar went to high school – a colleague was future aviation pioneer Orville Wright – then had humble employment as a lift boy. In 1893 his Oak and Ivy collection was published. A black poet, writing verse in the orthodox manner and in Negro dialect, Dunbar became a celebrity.

The London-born composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, son of an African, who died aged 37 in 1912, had a biography  by librarian W. C. Berwick Sayers published in 1915. Sayers wrote that Dunbar was attracted to the Briton whose “fame had already been heard of in America in 1896”,  the poet came to England that year, met the composer, and “the immediate result of the meeting was a joint recital at the Salle Erard”, repeated in Croydon in January 1897. This has misled readers for almost a century.

Board of Trade papers at the National Archives, Kew (west London) include many passenger lists, and from these we see Dunbar reaching Liverpool on the Auronia on 17 February 1897. The Pall Mall Gazette (2 March) expressed the hope his poems would be published in England. Chapman and Hall of London published a selection as Lyrics of Lowly Life, advertised in the Pall Mall Gazette and The Times in late May and early June. The Daily News reviewed them on 24 August 1897.

The Salle Erard recital with Coleridge-Taylor was on 5 June (The Times review of 7 June 1897: “it is a pity that the recital given…was not more widely known”). The monthly Musical Times review was published in July. U.S. ambassador John Hay is seen as supporting Dunbar in this, but Hay’s appointment was announced after Dunbar left for Liverpool which suggests that Hay did not sponsor Dunbar’s entire trip, as some websites note.

Dunbar sailed from Southampton on the St Louis at the end of July 1897 and his “England as Seen by a Black Man” was published in the Independent (New York) 16 September 1897. It failed to mention Coleridge-Taylor or Dunbar’s early contact, Catherine Impey, a Quaker civil-rights enthusiast who lived in Street, Somerset (her family ran a shoe manufacturing business there). Dunbar’s Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903) was dedicated to her.

That summer of 1897 saw Coleridge-Taylor complete his seven years at the Royal College of Music (London) and start a career as a professional composer. Performances of his creations had been reviewed in the London and musical press, and Augener had published his Lament and Merrymaking  as Two Romantic Pieces for violin and piano, and Southern Love Songs in January 1897, and Legend (violin and piano) in February (advertisements in the weekly Musical News). In June 1897 Augener was advertising his Hiawathan Sketches (again, for violin and piano). The Dunbar & Coleridge-Taylor cooperation Dream Lovers: an Operatic Romance was published by Boosey in 1898 – and before the end of 1898 Coleridge-Taylor had a wider reputation in Britain. It is very unlikely that Dunbar knew anything about Coleridge-Taylor before he reached London the year before. Indeed there is evidence that the composer sought out the poet in London.

There is evidence that Coleridge-Taylor, whose African doctor father was known to other successful Sierra Leoneans, was in contact with some of them in England – the invention by biographer Berwick Sayers that Dr D. P. H. Taylor had practiced medicine in England, then returned to Freetown is untrue, as Taylor was back in Africa months before his son, the future composer, was born in 1875.

The prince of Madagasgar and his friends who feature in Dream Lovers result from Dunbar (the music was C-T’s). C-T’s African Romances, seven songs with Dunbar’s lyrics, was published by Augener in August 1897. These and the other creations sold well, for Augener continued to published C-T’s music.

There were periods, sometimes quite lengthy (and with African Romances quite short), between the first performance of a new piece and its publication. Thus Danse Negre introduced in February 1898 but was published perhaps a year later. There is also a danger in assuming that opus numbers (the catalogue number of a composer’s works) were in sequence – and that publication was in that sequence. This impacts on understanding Dunbar’s influence on the composer, a matter already confused by the incorrect year given for their meeting and the error that suggested that meeting was almost immediately after the American arrived in London.

Dream Lovers was to be opus 11 in the 1915 biography’s listing; but more correctly it should be opus 25. Danse Negre was said by the Musical Times in early 1898 to be opus 21, which the biography allocates elsewhere placing this, as part of the African Suite as opus 35.

Dunbar spent over five months in England in 1897. It seems his contacts with Coleridge-Taylor were in the second half of that period, which leaves us to ponder what else he was doing, and to wonder about mutual exchanges between the two young black men – other than the addition of the American’s poetry to the music of the Briton.

Herbert Woodward Martin and Ronald Primeau (eds), In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar (Ohio University Press, 2002) has the texts of Dream Lovers and “England as Seen by a Black Man”.

See this site, page 069.

My thanks to Caroline Bressey for clarification of Miss Impey’s links to Dunbar in England, and to Howard Rye and Charles Kay for shipping list details.



2 thoughts on “050: Paul Laurence Dunbar in England

    1. Not to my knowledge but many African Americans have been claimed to have performed/recited/danced etc for British royalty. Victoria’s contacts would be mentioned in the London Times. Best wishes Jeff Green

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