SAMUEL COLERIDGE TAYLOR: The Lydians Perform ‘Hiawatha’

“Far and away the cleverest fellow amongst the young men.” Sir Edward Elgar, 1898.

Fondest sentiments made of then 23-year-old Samuel Coleridge-Taylor from the leading composer of that time, Sir Edward Elgar, whose recommendation to the Three Choirs Festival, helped (to) solidify Coleridge-Taylor’s career.

Samuel Coleridge TaylorHe was born of an English mother, Alice Martin and Daniel Peter Taylor, a native of Sierra Leon (who in 1894 was appointed Coroner for the British Empire in the Gambia.

The senior Taylor returned to West Africa prior to Coleridge-Taylor’s birth and henceforth no correspondence was ever documented between the two. It is alleged that he may not have known of his son’s existence. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (August 15, 1875 – September 1, 1912) who called himself an Anglo-African, began his journey into musical excellence at the age of (7) seven, when his maternal step-grandfather bought him a child’s violin to play at home and subsequently realized he was a child prodigy.

This finding was affirmed by music teacher Joseph Beckwith, who saw him, with violin clutched in hand, playing marbles at the front of his house. Intrigued and astonished by his prowess, Beckwith taught him at no cost, for the eight years following. Teaching Beckwith’s son was Coleridge-Taylor’s way of returning the favor. By age 9 Coleridge-Taylor had already conducted his music class in the National Anthem, to a new tune, at his teacher’s request, among other performances where he was often shown off to visitors.

Furthering his musical education, he was patronized by Colonel Herbert Walters, who it is alleged, may have known his father. Walters was also the local choirmaster at St. George’s Church, where Coleridge-Taylor sang. Walters also played an integral part in Coleridge-Taylor’s acceptance to the Royal College of Music. The principal of RCM hesitated to admit him possibly for worry of objections from other students due to his (Coleridge-Taylor’s) skin color.

Samuel Coleridge TaylorTwo years after enrolling as a violin student at the age of 15, he switched to Composition, under the tutelage of Charles Villiers Stanford, who challenged him to write a quintet for clarinet without showing Brahms’ influence. On hearing the piece the New York Times critic called it, “something of an eye opener… an assured piece of writing in the post-Romantic tradition…sweetly melodic”, when it was revived in 1973.

At age 21 he was introduced to Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906), an African-American poet. This resulted in Coleridge-Taylor proceeding to set some of Dunbar‘s poems to music. The works were given the name “Seven African Romances” which the two composers performed jointly in 1897, A Corn Song 1897 and an opera, Dream Lovers 1898. In the same year, the 23 year old Coleridge-Taylor rose to prominence when the first of two works, Ballade in A Minor, was commissioned for the annual Three Choirs Festival at Elgar’s suggestion. The piece won critical acclaim.

The next work, for which he is best known, was Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, derived from verses of “Songs of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). The premier was conducted by Coleridge-Taylor to astounding success. During the next 15 years Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was staged hundreds of times in the United Kingdom alone. Due to the publicity the work gained the composer both in the U.K. and abroad, in 1904, 1906 and 1910 he toured North America. These were the most important events in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s career as a composer.

His association with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois further showed his character and the impact of his work. This led to an introduction to Twenty-four African Romances being written by Booker T. Washington, who respected and admired Coleridge-Taylor’ work, a sentiment expressed by many African Americans. William Ethaniel Thomas, Music Director, Cambridge Community Chorus wrote:

Samuel Coleridge Taylor“The paternity of Mr. Coleridge-Taylor and his love for what is elemental and racial found rich expression in the choral work by which he is best known, and more obviously in his African Romances, Op. 17, a set of seven songs; the African Suite for the piano, Op. 35; and Five Choral Ballads, for baritone solo, quartet, chorus and orchestra, Op. 54 being a setting of five of Longfellow's Poems on Slavery. The transcription of Negro melodies contained in this volume is, however, the most complete expression of Mr. Coleridge-Taylor's native bent and power. Using some of the native songs of Africa and the West Indies with songs that came into being in America during the slavery régime, he has in handling these melodies preserved their distinctive traits and individuality, at the same time giving them an art form fully imbued with their essential spirit.”

Coleridge-Taylor married one of his classmates, Jessie Walmisley on Dec. 30, 1899. She was pianist. She bore him two children, Hiawatha (1900-1980) and Avril, born Gwendolyn (1903-1998). Both later earned degrees from the Guildhall School of Music and had careers in the U.K. as classical composers. Alice was also a conductor and pianist. His wife, Jessie and daughter Alice (Gwendolyn) wrote biographies on him after his death.

The composer left a large and diverse body of music, both vocal and instrumental. He reaped very little reward for his work, so, in order to live, he held a permanent conducting position with the Handel Society of London from 1904 till his passing. He began teaching in 1895. At the time of his death he was a Professor of Composition at Trinity College of Music, Crystal Palace School of Art and Music and Guildhall School of Music. He was also lecturer at Croydon conservatoire. Pneumonia complicated by exhaustion from overwork greatly contributed to the composer’s death but effected the adoption of a system of royalties for composers in the U.K.

During his tour in 1904 he went to Washington D.C. and conducted the Coleridge-Taylor Society, and African American choir, who were appearing with the United States Marine Band. His visit to the White House and then President Theodore Roosevelt had significant cultural and social connections. An extraordinary event for a person of color around that time touched the hearts of many. William Tortolano’s book, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Anglo Black composer, 1875-1912, says that during S.C.Taylor’s visit, he was presented with “a baton made from cedar on the estate of the Negro leader Frederick Douglas…by the pupils of the M Street school for girls.

Samuel Coleridge TaylorToday there are two schools named after the composer. The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky (established in 1911 as a school for “colored” children and named for him in 1913) and in Baltimore, Maryland, The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School (Public School No. 122) established in 1926 as the first elementary school built for “colored” children in Baltimore.

He was an ardent supporter of the Pan African Movement and remained that way till his death on September 1, 1912. The composer contracted double pneumonia and died in his own bed apparently smiling and conducting an orchestra, which could only be seen by him.

Arnold Rampersad, The Art and imagination of W.E.B DuBois (Schocken Books, New York, 1976)

Here the success of Coleridge-Taylor represents the fulfillment of black potential once granted the opportunity to develop in relative freedom. The black psyche, in the absence of racism flowers into unlimited achievement….The accomplishments of Coleridge-Taylor repudiate notions of innate black or mulatto inferiority: his productive career in British music was an augury of the future of the black man and of race relations in general…

Compiled by: AR August 2008