History

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Britain's forgotten composer

If you do a Google search for a list of Britain's classical composers, you're likely to find the names of Edward Elgar; Gustav Holst; Benjamin Britten; and George Frideric Handel all featuring in that list. Unfortunately, you will have to search very diligently to find the name of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor listed among them yet, Coleridge-Taylor, who was mixed-race, is one of Britain's greatest ever composers.

This omission is just another example of how white historians have consistently written black contributors out of history. This article is about the late 19th century British composer, and a small attempt to try and set the matter straight. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (15 August 1875 to 1 September 1912) was an English composer of interracial descent who achieved such success with his compositions that he was once called the African Mahler.

A classic samuel Coleridge-Taylor pose
A portrait photograph of the great man

 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in 1875 in Holborn, London, to Alice Hare Martin, an English woman, and Dr Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, a mixed-race man from Sierra Leone (of mixed European and African descent). They were not married, and Alice herself was an illegitimate child. Daniel returned to Africa in February 1875, and didn't know that he had a son in London. Alice named her son Samuel Coleridge Taylor, after the poet (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and his mother and grandfather called the boy Coleridge Taylor.

Coleridge-Taylor was brought up in Croydon by his mother and her father, Benjamin Holmans. His mother's brother was a professional musician, and Samuel studied the violin at the Royal College of Music (and composition) under Charles Villiers Stanford. After he had completed his studies, he taught music, and was later appointed as a professor of the Crystal Palace School of Music. Combining this with his personal interests, Samuel also conducted the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire.

Edward Elgar
Gustav Holst

 

By 1896, Coleridge-Taylor was already earning himself a standing and reputation as a high quality composer. He would later be helped by Edward Elgar, who recommended him to the 'Three Choirs Festival.' His acclaimed Ballade in 'A' minor was premiered there. And at the same time that Samuel was being celebrated in England his father, Daniel Taylor, was being appointed as the chief coroner for the British Empire in The Gambia, West africa, in the late 1890s.

Coleridge-Taylor's early work was also guided by the influential music editor and critic, August Jaeger, of music publisher Novello, who told Elgar that Coleridge-Taylor was 'a musical genius.' During the prolific period of his work, Coleridge-Taylor composed a wide variety of pieces including chamber music, anthems, and the 'African Dances' for violin, among other works. The 'Petite Suite de Concert' is still regularly played today.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, wife and children
Avril Coleridge-Taylor with her own children

 

He set one poem by his near-namesake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Legend of Kubla Khan, to music. Composers were not handsomely paid for their music, and they often sold the rights to their works outright to make immediate income. This caused them to lose the royalties earned by the publishers who had invested in the music distribution through publication. His popular 'Hiawatha's Wedding Feast' sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but Coleridge-Taylor had already sold the music outright for the sum of 15 guineas, so did not benefit directly.

On the strength of 'Hiawatha's Wedding Feast' Coleridge-Taylor made three tours of the United States. He became increasingly interested in his paternal racial heritage, as his father was descended from African slaves freed by the British after the American Civil War; the freed slaves were resettled in Nova Scotia, and then 1200 moved to Sierra Leone in 1792, establishing the colony of Freetown. And at one stage, Coleridge-Taylor seriously considered emigrating to the America.

The Royal College of Music
The centre of Chrystal Palace

 

In 1904, Coleridge-Taylor was received by President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House, a rare honour in those days especially for a man of African descent. But having accepted his African heritage, Coleridge-Taylor sought to do for traditional African music what Johannes Brahms did for Hungarian music. And having met the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, Taylor set some of his poems to music. A joint recital between Taylor and Dunbar was arranged in London, under the patronage of US Ambassador, John Milton Hay.

The recital was organised by Henry Francis Downing, an African-American playwright and London resident. Dunbar and other black people encouraged Coleridge-Taylor to draw inspiration from his Sierra Leonean ancestry, and from the music of the African continent.

Maud Cuney set up the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society
Music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Radio Broadcast (Part One), The Longfellow Chorus

 

Coleridge-Taylor's greatest success was undoubtedly his cantata 'Hiawatha's Wedding Feast,' which was widely performed by choral groups in England during his lifetime and in the decades after his death. Its popularity was rivalled only by the choral standards of Handel's Messiah and Mendelssohn's Elijah.

The composer soon followed his Hiawatha's Wedding Feast with two other cantatas about Hiawatha; The Death of Minnehaha and Hiawatha's Departure. All three were published together, along with an Overture (The Song of Hiawatha). The popular Hiawatha seasons at the Royal Albert Hall, which continued till 1939, were conducted by Sargent and involved hundreds of choristers. Hiawatha's Wedding Feast is still occasionally revived to huge audiences around the world.

An actual photograph of Chief Hiawatha
An image of Chief Hiawatha by Longfellow

 

In 1899, Coleridge-Taylor married Jessie Walmisley, who he had met as a fellow student at the RCM. Jessie had left the college in 1893, but her parents objected to the marriage because Coleridge-Taylor was of mixed-race parentage. The couple had a son, who they named Hiawatha after the Native American immortalised in poetry and his composition, and a daughter Gwendolyn. She later took the name of Avril and became a noted conductor and composer in her own right.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was 37 when he died of pneumonia, a few days after collapsing at West Croydon railway station. He was buried in Bandon Hill Cemetery, Wallington, Surrey (today in the London Borough of Sutton). After Coleridge-Taylor's death in 1912, musicians were concerned that he and his family had received no royalties from what was some of the most successful and popular works written in the previous 50 years. His case contributed to the formation of the Performing Rights Society, in an effort to gain revenues for musicians through performance, as well as the publication and distribution of their music.

A Heritage poster for Hiawatha's Wedding Feast
US President Theodore Roosevelt

 

A memorial concert was held at the Royal Albert Hall, and the organisers collected £300 for the composer's family. And King George V granted Jessie Coleridge-Taylor, the young widow, an annual pension of £100, evidence of the high regard in which the composer was held in Britain at the time.

Coleridge-Taylor's work continued to be popular around the world. He was later championed by conductor Malcolm Sargent, who (between 1928 and 1939) conducted ten seasons of a costumed ballet version of The Song of Hiawatha at the Royal Albert Hall, performed by the Royal Choral Society (800 singers) and 200 dancers.

Samuel Coloridge-Taylor at his piano
The Royal Albert Hall

 

Coleridge-Taylor was greatly admired by African Americans. In 1901, a 200-voice African-American choir was founded in Washington DC, named the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society. He visited the USA three times, receiving great acclaim, and earned the title of 'the African Mahler' from the white orchestral musicians in New York in 1910. There are schools named after him in Louisville, Kentucky, and Baltimore, Maryland: The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School.

There are two blue plaques in his memory, one in Dagnall Park, South Norwood, and the other in St Leonards Road, Croydon, at the house where he died. And a metal statue in the likeness of Coleridge-Taylor has been erected in Charles Street, Croydon. Coleridge-Taylor's only large-scale operatic work, Thelma, was long believed to have been lost. And as recently as 1995, Geoffrey Self, in his biography of Coleridge-Taylor, The Hiawatha Man, stated that the manuscript of Thelma had not been located, and that the piece may have been destroyed by its creator.

A blue plaque erected for Samuel Coleridge-Taylor by the GLC
The samuel Coleridge-Taylor youth centre in South East London

 

Thelma is a saga of deceit, magic, retribution and the triumph of love over wickedness. The composer followed Richard Wagner's manner in the established 'numbers' opera, preferring a blend of aria and ensemble. It is possible that he got the name of 'Thelma' Marie Corelli's 1887 (Nordic) novel, Thelma. Coleridge-Taylor composed Thelma between 1907 and 1909, and he gave it the alternative title of 'The Amulet.' The full score and vocals are in the British Library, both written in the composer's own hand, the full score is unbound but complete but the vocal score is bound and complete with the words.