The black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912) is known almost exclusively for his large-scale work, ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’. There is however much more to this fascinating man than just one work, including the story behind his very early chamber music works such as the Opus 1 Piano Quintet of 1893.
Life and art are intertwined in the biography of this gentle, committed advocate of equal rights who was also a hugely talented musician…..
If ever there was a tale to be told, this is it. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor lived only 37 years and is one of Britain’s best kept musical secrets. Black History Month, in October, will offer an opportunity to reveal more about the story behind the life of this remarkable man.
Samuel Coleridge (he named himself for the poet) was born in Holborn London on 15 August 1875, the dark-skinned son of Dr Daniel Taylor, a London-trained physician from Sierra Leone whom the child never saw, and of an abandoned English mother, Alice Hare, who later married a railway worker and with him struggled to support their family in Croydon. Samuel’s arrival was quite possibly out of wedlock – a shocking start in life in those unforgiving Victorian times. And yet, from this unpromising beginning, he was by the time of his death in 1912 a nationally feted figure, a composer, conductor and professor of music who travelled extensively, both within the United Kingdom and even, three times, to the United States.
A talent emerging
Samuel’s change in reputational (if not financial) fortunes began when he got to know a wealthy Croydon benefactor, Colonel Herbert Walters, who helped to pay for his childhood violin and piano lessons. The boy’s talent then took him at an early age to study performance and composition at the newly-established Royal College of Music in London, where by the age of eighteen in 1893 he had produed his first mature pieces, including the magnificent Opus 1 Piano Quintet*.
There were, as with every composer, many formative influences, but even from his earliest works Samuel Coleridge-Taylor showed an interesting combination of approaches to composition; he employed unusual time measures (5/4 at one point in the Fantasiestcke) whilst incorporating also into his music the sorts of melodies and harmonies which he, though never having heard them at first hand for himself, believed might be found in his black (‘Anglo-African’) cultural heritage. This later resulted in several works such as the African Suite with its Danse Negre, as well as his Negro Melodies and much else.
Slavery, inequality and widening experience
Given Coleridge-Taylor’s personal family history, and his concerns throughout adulthood with slavery, inequality and injustice, it is telling that the Hiawatha trilogy, his best-known composition, relates the story of an Amerindian child raised by his grandmother who, as an adult, seeks out his father before leading his people forward courageously, making prophesies about the future of his race and the arrival of the white man.
Indeed, by 1900 and at the age of just 25, Coleridge-Taylor was reflecting art in life, as an elected representative to the great 1900 Pan-African Conference in London, which publicised the plight of African peoples throughout the British Empire. By then too his professional career was taking wings, and he was for some years the protégé of amongst others Sir Edward Elgar, as well as his original musical mentor, the first Principal of the Royal College of Music, Sir George Grove, and the composition professor, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.
Samuel was never to become wealthy – which, there being no Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation to promote his work after his death, meant his music was effectively lost for many years. But as the composer developed in adulthood as a musician and as a man, he commanded huge respect across the very broad spectrum of his friends and colleagues.
By his death in 1912 Coleridge-Taylor had produced well over one hundred works, but it was his early extended choral trilogy, Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha, composed between 1898 and 1900, which brought him to the public eye. For many years even after his death this piece was performed annually at the Royal Albert Hall, in elaborate costume with processions and much theatre.
Other music by Coleridge-Taylor included many interesting and varied works, including several operas (A Tale of Old Japan springs tantalisingly to mind), chamber works (mostly from earlier in his career) and a Violin Concerto only recently recorded after many years of neglect, sometimes by those who should have known better. Slowly however there has been a re-emergence of his music, as manuscripts are rediscovered and if necessary edited into performable scores. The annual HOTFOOT concert of HOPES: The Hope Street Association in Liverpool has since 1996 presented a considerable number of Coleridge-Taylor pieces, including excerpts from Hiawatha, the African Suite, the Romance for Violin and Orchestra, the Petite Suite de Concert and the Ballet Suite.
For several years around the Millennium these and other performances of Coleridge-Taylor’s music were encouraged by Daniel Labonne, who chaired the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society.
Visits to the United States of America
Coleridge-Taylor carried out a large number of appointments as conductor or adjudicator at festivals and competitions, constantly travelling around Britain and beyond, and visited the United States three times, in 1904, 1906 qnd 1910 (probably departing from Liverpool; he knew John Archer of Liverpool, who was later to become the first black British mayor, in Battersea, and whose portrait is now in Liverpool Town Hall).
One interesting aspect of these travels is that Coleridge-Taylor is thought on occasion to have sent his manuscripts ahead, and there is a suspicion that his very early String Quartet, now lost, may have gone down with the Titanic.
Whilst in America Coleridge-Taylor conducted many of his own works, often performed by black musicians whose recent family history included slavery and oppression (at one point he refused to return to the USA until he had assurances that his singers, if not players, would be black people). During all his visits he was received as a great celebrity, eventually conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as the only black person present.
Because of this travel a considerable amount of Coleridge-Taylor’s music is to be found in repositories such as the Free Library of Philadelphia, rather than all at the Royal College of Music or elsewhere in Britain.. Coleridge-Taylor remains to this day a role model in the United States, with music societies and schools named after him.
A premature end
In 1912, after twelve years of happily married life (to Jessie Walmisley, another pianist) and fatherhood (his two children, Hiawatha and Gwendolyn, both also became musicians) but also of hard-pressed poverty, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor died of pneumonia, a condition which previous good health – or antibiotics, had they been available then – would simply have seen him indisposed for a week or two.
And so, in his prime (who knows what other music he might have produced, given time?), died a thoroughly decent man, much loved and respected across the nation, and an inspirational musician…..