Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875 to Alice Hare Martin, an English woman who named her son after the early 19th century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His father, Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, who came from Sierra Leone to study medicine in London, had already returned to Africa when he was born. Father and son never met.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was brought up by his mother and maternal grandfather. Coming from a family of numerous musicians, his grandfather began teaching him the violin at young age. Recognising the boy’s obvious musical talent, his grandfather also paid for him to have violin lessons. At the age of fifteen, the extended family arranged for him to attend the Royal College of Music where he studied composition under Professor Charles Villiers Stanford. After his degree, Coleridge-Taylor became a professional musician. Soon he was appointed a professor at the Crystal Palace School of Music and was conductor of the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire.
Coleridge-Taylor’s talent as a composer was recognised by the influential music editor and critic August Jaeger who described him as “a genius” to Edward Elgar. He in turn invited the young musician to compose an orchestral piece for the Three Choirs Festivals in Worcester in 1898. The work, entitled “Ballade for Orchestra Op.33”, won immediate public recognition and Edgar described the then twenty-three year old Coleridge-Taylor as “far the cleverest fellow among the young men”.
Two months after the accolades won in Worcester, Coleridge-Taylor’s reputation as a composer was sealed by the first Cantata of his trilogy ‘Hiawatha’, based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem. Sir Arthur Sullivan attended the premiere of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the first cantata, and commented: “Much impressed by the lad’s genius. He is a composer not a music maker, the music is fresh and original - he has melody and harmony in abundance and his scoring is brilliant and full of colour, at times luscious, rich and sensual. The work was very well done”.
‘Hiawatha’ won accolades at home and abroad. Coleridge-Taylor achieved such success that he was referred to by white New York musicians as the "African Mahler” when he had three tours of the United States in the early 1900s. To African-Americans who were almost totally excluded from all aspects of American and cultural life, Coleridge-Taylor became a symbol of cultural fulfilment and pride in their race. African-American music was lampooned, but Coleridge-Taylor showed that ‘coloured’ people could hold their own in composition and performance of serious music. The overture to the ‘Wedding Feast’ was especially appealing to African-Americans because Coleridge-Taylor based the composition on the spiritual, ‘Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen’. Coleridge-Taylor had become deeply interested in Spiritual Songs of the African-Americans since hearing The Fisk University Jubilee singers who were on tour in England in 1899. To the delight of African-Americans, he started incorporating these lyrics into his compositions.
A strong bond of friendship was formed between the composer and African-Americans.
It became clear to a small group of African-Americans in Washington that the presence of Coleridge-Taylor in their country would inspire local musicians. An organisation was formed which later assumed the name ‘The Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society’. The society raised funds and arranged for Coleridge-Taylor’s first visit to America in 1904. As a celebrated black artist, he was also invited to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Coleridge-Taylor became involved with African networks. In 1897 he wrote a poem celebrating fifty years of Liberian independence from colonial rule which was published in the African Times. Later, Coleridge-Taylor was made a Knight Official of African Redemption, the highest decoration which the Liberian Government can bestow. This honour is verified by documents held in the Royal College of Music Museum.
It is known that in 1897 Coleridge-Taylor sought out Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a young African- American poet, who was in London in search of a publisher. The musician and poet worked together to produce two works. Paul Dunbar’s poetry and his meeting with the Fisk Jubilee Singers influenced the composition of ‘Twenty Four Negro Melodies’. Coleridge-Taylor wrote of this composition: “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk music, Dvorak for the Bohemian and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro melodies.”
Booker T Washington, a leading African-American educationalist, wrote the preface for this work. The following is an extract: “Negro music is essentially spontaneous. In Africa it sprang to life at wardance, at funerals, and at marriage festivals. Upon the African foundation the plantation songs of the South were built. His work, moreover, possesses not only charm but distinction, the individual note. The genuineness, the depth and intensity of his feeling, coupled with his mastery of technique, spontaneity, and ability to think in his own way, explain the force of the appeal his compositions make.”
“What has been presented here is simply a strand out of the life of a talented Anglo- African composer; and the use he made of his talent in the service of the African race, both in Africa and America. He worked within the framework of his classical training to promote African music. This was his contribution to the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. His life indicates that he embraced both his African and English heritage fully and served both generously. The first version of his piece, ‘Violin Concerto’ was on its way to its US premiere when it went down with the Titanic. The central movement was based on a spiritual entitled, ‘Keep me from Sinking Down’! This proved to be his last commission. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was just thirty-seven when he died of pneumonia in London in 1912.” (Rosemary Rowe)
Links to orchestral pieces below:
Chineke! Orchestra-Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Ballade for orchestra, Op.33
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor-Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898) (Full Score)