In 1898, Coleridge-Taylor was fresh from his success with his orchestral Ballade in A minor, which was performed at the Three Choirs Festival of 1898 after Edward Elgar had recommended him as "far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the younger men". He was then inspired to write a choral work Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, to words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha.
The score was completed in May 1898 and was published by Novello before the first performance was given. Interest in Hiawatha's Wedding Feast was so great from sales of the music that, even before a single note of the work had been heard in public, Coleridge-Taylor was commissioned to write a sequel, The Death of Minnehaha.
Consequently, great publicity preceded the premiere of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, and many people were refused admission, but one person who was accommodated was Sir Arthur Sullivan, who said "I'm always an ill man now, my boy, but I'm coming to hear your music tonight even if I have to be carried". The premiere took place on 11 November 1898 at the Royal College of Music, under the baton of his teacher, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. (Some sources say the composer conducted the work himself; however, others make it clear that he was so shy that Stanford had to leave the stage to seek him out in order to coax him up to the stage to receive the audience's applause.) Sir Hubert Parry described the event as "one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history". The success of the work was immediate and international.