Hiawatha's Wedding Feast (1898) is the first cantata of a trilogy, The Song of Hiawatha, which combines the music of African-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor with the words of the poem written in 1855 by Cambridge resident Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882).
A great humanist and champion of the common person, Longfellow enjoyed tremendous renown in his own lifetime both in the United States and in England. His poetry was loved and recited by countless schoolchildren into the first decades of this century. The Song of Hiawatha was among the first in U.S. literature to honor the stories and legends of the people native to this continent.
Coleridge-Taylor was 23 years old when he wrote this great work. The work was first performed at the Royal College of Music on November 11, 1898. The first performance is described by Sir Hubert Parry in the Musical Times of October, 1912, shortly after Coleridge-Taylor's death. The performance took place "in a makeshift concert room of the College, which was known as the `tin tabernacle'" and was "one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history."
It had got abroad in some unaccountable and mysterious manner that something of unusual interest was going to happen, and when the time came for the concert the `tin tabernacle' was besieged by eager crowds, a large proportion of whom were shut out -- but accommodation was found for Sir Arthur Sullivan and other musicians of eminence. Expectation was not disappointed, and Hiawatha started on a career [which] established it as one of the the most universally beloved works of modern English music.
The first performance of Hiawatha in the United States was here in Massachusetts. The Cecilia Society of Boston under Mr. B.J. Lang gave this first performance on March 14, 1900.
William Tortolano writes in his book, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Anglo-Black Composer:
Coleridge-Taylor was innately shy about, and even contemptuous of publicity and attention. When the finished work was first performed to a wildly enthusiastic audience at the Royal College...it was necessary for Stanford...to leave the stage and seek out the composer...Every London paper devoted considerable space to this unusual work, and without exception acclaimed it as an artistic masterpiece. Coleridge-Taylor received only 15 guineas for the outright sale of his opus. Although hundreds of thousands of copies were sold in subsequent years, the 15 guineas remained the composer's total income for his masterpiece, as he sold the copyright for the first printing and performance.
Longfellow's narration, The Song of Hiawatha, apparently was based on a legend about another native American, a demigod named Nanabozho. It is not clear whether Longfellow was consciously mixing history and legend or if he might have chosen the name of the great Iroquois Chief Hiawatha for its pleasing sound.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a contemporary of Longfellow, had made use of his capacity as a government agent among the Indians of the upper Great Lakes to write down the folklore and legends of the Ojibwa Indians, including tales of Nanabozho. Schoolcraft also collected material on the Iroquois, including stories relating to the Chief Hayenwatha, also known as Hiawatha. Schoolcraft, in ignorance, applied Hiawatha's name to the demigod Nanabozho, and published the tales of Nanabozho as The Hiawatha Legends. It is probable that Longfellow was familiar with Schoolcraft's books. Though Longfellow created a moving and beautiful poem, his narrative has no bearing in fact on the great Iroquois leader.
The loving and respectful way that Longfellow illustrates the great wedding feast, and the vivid description of the wedding guests and their festivities are moving in their poetic beauty and romantic fancy. Most importantly, Longfellow has shown a deep respect for the culture and tradition of the native people he presents to us.