Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was a born and bred Londoner. He was born in Holborn, 15 Theobalds Road, but grew up in Croydon, and became one of the most famous composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
His mother, Alice Hare Martin, was English and his father, Dr. Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, was from Sierra Leone. He had come to London to study medicine and was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. Alongside his academic endeavours, he also fathered a child. A child who he never found out about. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor therefore spent most of his childhood at his grandfather’s house and in 1887 received a stepfather when his mother married railway storeman, George Evans. Though Coleridge-Taylor never met his father, he possibly found connections to his Sierra Leonian heritage as he got older, through his music and through friends in London from Sierra Leone, such as artist Kathleen Easmon.
It was Coleridge-Taylor’s grandfather who first introduced him to the violin and conducted his earliest lessons. He must have showed considerable talent because at the age of 15 he joined the Royal College of Music on a scholarship. It was also while at the College that he swapped his focus from the violin to composition.
It was about ten years after starting his musical education at the Royal College of Music that he sky-rocketed to fame with what would become his most famous piece, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the first section of a three-part composition which together was called The Song of Hiawatha. It was based on a nineteenth century epic poem of the same name by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about a love story between two Native Americans. In 1898, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast debuted at the Royal College of Music. The principal at the time, Hubert Parry, described it as “one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history”. The performance was also attended by Arthur Sullivan (of composing-duo Gilbert and Sullivan fame), who wrote afterwards in his diary of “the lad’s genius… he has melody and harmony in abundance”. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor went on to call his first child Hiawatha, demonstrating how much this piece of music and time in his life must have meant to him.
In 1900, so a couple of years after Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast had premiered, the first ever performance of all three parts of The Song of Hiawatha was conducted by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor himself, to an audience of 7,000 at none other than the Royal Albert Hall. In addition to this success, he became hugely popular in the United States, particularly amongst African-Americans, and he conducted three musical tours there in the first decade of the twentieth century. It was also during the first one, in 1904, that he was invited to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Despite his work being so well-received, this does not mean that he didn’t contend with opposition based on the colour of his skin. He had to struggle against racism throughout his life.
When he was at school, his nickname from the other children was ‘Coaly’.
In 1899, when he married his wife, Jessie Walmisley, her parents initially objected to the marriage because Coleridge-Taylor was Black. They eventually relented and attended the wedding.
Later in life, Coleridge-Taylor’s daughter, Gwendolen (later Avril), recorded in her biography that groups of local young people often made derogatory comments about the colour of her father’s skin. These experiences tormented him so much that Gwendolen wrote how, as soon as he saw them approaching along the street, he would clutch at her hand, “gripping it until it almost hurt.”
His wife, Jessie, also recounted in her memoirs that Coleridge-Taylor was frequently amused by critics who seemed uncertain or apprehensive about his specific heritage, possibly finding some satisfaction watching those struggle who had, in turn, made his own life difficult.
In his music, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor drew influence from Black communities across the world: the United States, the Caribbean, and West Africa. He sought to combine traditional African and Western classical music. In 1905, his Twenty-Four Negro Melodies was published, at the beginning of which he wrote that he wanted to do for Black music, “what Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk music, Dvorak for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian.” To demonstrate the breadth and under-appreciated beauty of melodies from the African Diaspora.
In 1896, he had met poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, while the latter was visiting London (and they subsequently collaborated on a number of projects). He was further inspired by the writings of historian, W.E.B. du Bois, and later met intellectual and orator, Booker T. Washington while in the States. Washington also prefaced Twenty-Four Negro Melodies and as part of his contribution, described the significance of the folk melodies which had inspired Coleridge-Taylor’s compositions. These pieces were inspired by African-American, West Indian (La Bamboula), and West African (e.g. Oloba) music and rhythms. His emotive Symphonic Variations on an African Air from the following year is directly inspired by a plantation song, ‘I’m troubled in mind’.
While he managed to achieve great levels of fame, there was contrastingly very little fortune. Composers in those days weren’t paid huge amounts so they often sold the rights to works for immediate income – Coleridge did this with Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (the first section) which ended up selling hundreds of thousands of copies, but Coleridge has sold the music outright for only fifteen guineas and so received none of the later royalties. This was a mistake which he obviously never made again, but unfortunately his later pieces were not as successful and he and his family continued to struggle financially.
This meant that when he died in 1912, his family was left with very little money. He died very young, only 37 years old, of pneumonia. He’d collapsed on the platform of West Croydon station, and died a few days later at home. In response, and showing how well regarded he must have been, a fundraising concert was held at the Royal Albert Hall, raising £300 for the family, and his wife Jessie was granted an annual pension of £100 (which would have been a lot of money in those days) by King George V.
Not only that, but from 1924, the Royal Albert Hall staged an annual two-week performance of the Hiawatha trilogy. A tradition started by Coleridge-Taylor’s son, Hiawatha, and which continued for fifteen years until 1939, only stopping because of the onset of the Second World War.
So while he’s drifted from the limelight a bit since then, he certainly made waves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is not to say that he hasn’t made an impact in the twenty-first century either. As recently as 2003, a large-scale operatic work called Thelma, by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, was discovered in the archives of the British Library by PhD student, Catherine Carr. Not only was it a piece which scholars had abandoned as lost (or even destroyed by the composer himself), it was the full score and vocal score in Coleridge-Taylor’s own hand. In 2012, to mark the centenary of the composer’s death, Thelma received its world debut, appropriately, in Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre, over a century after it was first composed.
“I want to be nothing in the world except what I am – a musician.”Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, quoted in Norwood News (7th Sept. 1912)