The British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was the first major classical composer of African descent.
Coleridge-Taylor's 1898 choral work Hiawatha's Wedding Feast was extraordinarily widely known among British classical listeners in the early years of the twentieth century. Although it was later eclipsed in popularity, it was performed all over the English-speaking world for several generations. Coleridge-Taylor was equally important as an early example of a composer who investigated the idea of an art rooted in the experience of the African diaspora, and his influence on African-American culture in the early decades of the twentieth century is just now beginning to gain its proper appreciation. Largely forgotten in the years after his untimely death, Coleridge-Taylor's works have been performed and recorded more and more often in recent times.
The circumstances of Coleridge-Taylor's early life are tangled. Named for the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he was born on August 15, 1875, in London. His father, D.P.H. (Daniel Peter Hughes) Taylor, was African. Originally from Freetown, Sierra Leone, he was part of a Krio (or Creole) family that had been rescued from transport into American slavery by the British navy after the abolition of slavery in Britain. The elder Taylor came to London to study medicine, but his background apparently discouraged potential patients. He returned to Africa, apparently before his son was born, and he may not even have known of his existence. He later became a physician in Banjul, Gambia, and died there in 1904.
Coleridge-Taylor was raised in the London suburb of Croydon by his mother, whose name was Alice. She used various surnames, including Taylor's, even though they were probably never married. (He might have been a renter in the boarding house her family operated.) She was also known as Alice Hare Martin, and she was later taken in by a family named Holmans. The patriarch of this family, Benjamin Holmans, was referred to by Coleridge-Taylor as his grandfather, and he may in fact have been Alice's father. It was Holmans who gave the young Coleridge-Taylor his first violin.
Suffering racial insults at school, including one incident in which his curly hair was set on fire, Coleridge-Taylor devoted himself to the violin with extra intensity. It was unusual for an English working class family to let a potential money-earning offspring take music lessons, but some of the Holmans family were musicians, and Coleridge-Taylor apparently showed enough talent to justify the outlay. He was given lessons with a local violinist named Joseph Beckwith, and in 1890 he entered the Royal College of Music in London.
By that time, Coleridge-Taylor had become interested in composition as well as violin performance. He had heard a number of classical concerts, probably at the Crystal Palace in south London not far from his home. In 1892 Coleridge-Taylor was accepted as a student by Royal College of Music professor Charles Villiers Stanford, one of the top composers in England at the time. In teaching Coleridge-Taylor about the music of German composer Johannes Brahms, Stanford made the assertion that it would be impossible to write a quintet for clarinet and strings without being influenced by Brahms's own sterling composition for that combination of instruments. Coleridge-Taylor took that as a dare and produced his own clarinet quintet, which has received several recordings in recent years. Stanford was forced to concede the originality of the young man's work, and Coleridge-Taylor became one of the school's star students. He received the Royal College of Music's sole composition fellowship in 1893. By the time he finished his studies in 1897, several of his student works, mostly chamber pieces (pieces for small groups of instruments), had been performed there.
Help From Hiawatha
Coleridge-Taylor also impressed Edward Elgar, the dean of British composers at the time, and Elgar recommended Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade in A minor for orchestra for presentation on the program at the 1898 Three Choirs Festival, one of Britain's most prestigious venues. Coleridge-Taylor followed that up with what was to be his greatest success: the giant cantata Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, set to a section of the “Song of Hiawatha” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A cantata is a work for chorus, soloists, and orchestra in which the singers often embody specific characters and make dramatic statements without the work being staged in the manner of an opera.
Hiawatha's Wedding Feast won rave notices in London newspapers and was an immediate smash hit; musical organizations all over England placed it on their schedules without having heard it. It became a staple of the choralorchestral repertoire all over the English-speaking world, was performed as far afield as South Africa and New Zealand, and also became well known in the United States. In addition to its purely melodic qualities, Norman Lebrecht pointed out in the London Evening Standard that ideological factors that could have contributed to its success: “To its composer, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast paid tribute to native North Americans, dignified in defeat. To his audiences, it celebrated the white man's triumph, the superiority of his culture.” During Coleridge-Taylor's lifetime the work remained a frequent presence on English concert programs; several sources state that it was equaled in popularity only by two similarly ambitious religious works, Handel's Messiah and Mendelssohn's Elijah.
Coleridge-Taylor set poetry by Shakespeare, Christina Rossetti, and other English writers to music, and many of his works stylistically resembled those of white English composers. However, even in his student days, he also showed an interest in creating an idiom that more closely reflected his African background, and in this enterprise he turned to African-American models. He heard the touring Fisk Jubilee Singers chorus from Nashville, Tennessee, and in 1896 he met the African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar in London. He went on to set some of Dunbar's poems to music, and the two even collaborated in 1898 on a stage work, Dream Lovers, subtitled “An Operatic Romance.” Coleridge-Taylor also wrote several orchestral works oriented toward Africa, including an African Suite and a set of Symphonic Variations on an African Air. Even the overture to Hiawatha's Wedding Feast incorporates the African-American spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen.”
In this tendency Coleridge-Taylor also took after another major white musician of the time: the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, who on his visits to the United States had urged American composers to seek out African-American musical materials as inspiration for their own music. Coleridge-Taylor made three tours of the United States, in 1904, 1906, and 1910. A similar duality between English and African appeared in his experiences and music-making on those voyages. He often conducted the Song of Hiawatha so energetically that American observers dubbed him the Black Mahler after the famous Austrian composer and conductor. In 1904 he conducted the combined forces of the United States Marine Band and an African-American choir, which was called the Coleridge-Taylor Society in his honor. Subjected to racial epithets on a train, he answered angrily that he was an Englishman. He was invited to visit President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House, a rare honor indeed for a black person at the time. Coleridge-Taylor's 1906 tour took him through the Midwest to St. Louis, Detroit, and Milwaukee, and also to Toronto, Canada.
Coleridge-Taylor also furthered his activities in support of an emerging black classical music and of what was known as Pan-Africanism: the view that the works of Africandescended creative artists were tied together by common qualities derived from their creators' African backgrounds. In the words of Stuart Jeffries of the London Guardian, Coleridge-Taylor “was regarded as an icon by panAfricanists, the early 20th-century movement that contended that black people share an origin and that their cultural products should express particularly fundamental beliefs.”
Coleridge-Taylor admired W.E.B. DuBois's 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, calling it one of the best books he had read by any author, white or black. He was honored in turn by black American creative figures, and when he visited Washington, D.C., students at the M Street School for Girls presented him with a baton made from a cedar tree on the estate of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. Even today, many American communities have schools named for Coleridge-Taylor, and according to an essay by Blydon Jackson quoted on the Web site of the Cambridge Community Chorus, “American Negroes who were born in the earlier years of this century grew up in black communities where the name of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was as well known then as now are such names as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.” Coleridge-Taylor's set of Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, Op 59 were based on melodies such as “Deep River,” many of which he had heard in performances by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. His program notes for those piano pieces, quoted on the AfriClassical Web site, stated that “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.”
Despite these successes in America, Coleridge-Taylor's career in England was somewhat hampered by the lack of a fund of inherited wealth on which he could draw. In 1899 he married fellow Royal College of Music student Jessie Walmisley, and the pair had two children: a son, Hiawatha, born in 1900, and a daughter, Gwendolyn, known as Avril, born in 1903. Coleridge-Taylor took on a variety of highprofile but time-consuming posts in order to support his family. From 1904 until his death he was principal conductor at the Handel Society of London, and he held professorships at Trinity College of Music, the Crystal Palace School of Art and Music, and the Guildhall School of Music. He could never turn down a commission, and he continued to compose voluminously, providing incidental music for a London production of Shakespeare's Othello and writing an orchestral Petite Suite among other works. He never equaled the success of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast. Critics disagree about the musical value of his later works, with some venturing the opinion that they might have lacked inspiration because of the financial and time pressures that affected the composer.
On August 28, 1912, while waiting for a train at the West Croydon railway station, Coleridge-Taylor collapsed. He died on September 1 from pneumonia, the effects of which were likely compounded by exhaustion. He was just 37 years old. Coleridge-Taylor remained popular after his death, and several biographies of the composer appeared, including one by his wife. As the grandiloquent choral style represented by Hiawatha's Wedding Feast fell out of fashion, Coleridge-Taylor was largely forgotten, but the end of the twentieth century saw a tremendous revival of interest in his work. But Dream Lovers, which would potentially seem to be an important document in the evolution of the African-American musical, had not yet been recorded as of 2008, and the significance of Coleridge-Taylor's example in the evolution of urban African-American culture remained a fertile field of investigation.
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians, centennial ed., Nicolas Slonimsky, ed. emeritus, Schirmer, 2001.
Sayers, W. C. Berwick, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Musician: His Life and Letters, Cassell, 1915.
Self, Geoffrey, The Hiawatha Man, Scolar, 1915.
Tortolano, William, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Anglo-black composer, 1875–1912, Scarecrow, 1977.
American Record Guide, March-April 1996; July-August 1999.
Black Music Research Journal, Fall 2001.
Evening Standard (London, England), April 7, 2004.
Guardian (London, England), January 3, 2003.
News & Record (Piedmont Triad, NC), February 2, 2001.
“Samuel Coleridge-Taylor,” AfriClassical.com, http://www.africlassical.com (February 4, 2008).
“Samuel Coleridge-Taylor,” Cambridge Chorus, http://www.cambridgechorus.org/docs/comps/SC-Taylor.html (February 4, 2008).
“Samuel Coleridge-Taylor,” 100 Great Black Britons, http://www.100greatblackbritons.com/bios/samuel_coleridge-taylor.html (February 4, 2008).
Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel, important English composer, conductor, and teacher; b. London, Aug. 15, 1875; d. Croydon, Sept. 1, 1912. His father was a black Sierra Leone physician and his mother was English. After violin lessons with Joseph Beckwith in Croydon, he entered the Royal Coll. of Music in London in 1890 to continue his violin training; in 1892 he became a composition student of Stanford there, and in 1893 he won a composition scholarship; before completing his studies in 1897, he had several of his works premiered there. His first public success came with his Ballade in A minor for Orch., which was premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester on Sept. 14, 1898. It was soon followed by what proved to be his most successful score, the cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, which was first performed under Stanford’s direction at the Royal Coll. of Music on Nov. 11, 1898. It was subsequently performed widely in Europe and the U.S. Although he continued to compose in earnest, he never duplicated this popular success. He also was active as a conductor, leading various orchestral and choral aggregations. He likewise was engaged in teaching, serving as prof, of composition at Trinity Coll. of Music (from 1903) and at the Guildhall School of Music (from 1910) in London. In 1904, 1906, and 1910 he visited the U.S. While greatly influenced by Dvorak, Coleridge-Taylor’s works also reveal a fascination with black subjects and melodies.
DRAMATIC: Dream Lovers, operatic romance (1898); The Gitanos, cantata-operetta (1898); Thelma, opera (1907–09). Incidental music to Stephen Phillips’s Herod (1900), Ulysses (1901–02), Nero (1906), and Faust (1908); also to Noyes’s The Forest of Wild Thyme (1910) and Shakespeare’s Othello (1910–11). orch.:Ballade for Violin and Orch. (1895); Sym. (London, March 6, 1896); Legende for Violin and Orch. (1897); 4 Characteristic Waltzes (1899); Ballade (Gloucester, Sept. 13, 1898); Romance for Violin and Orch. (c. 1899); Solemn Prelude (Worcester, Sept. 13, 1899); (4) Scenes from an Everyday Romance, suite (London, May 24, 1900); Idyll (Gloucester, Sept. 11, 1901); Toussaint l’Ouverture (London, Oct. 26, 1901); Ethiopa Saluting the Colours, march (1902); 4 Novelletten for Strings, Tambourine, and Triangle (1903); Symphonic Variations on an African Air (London, June 14, 1906); Fantasiestiick for Cello and Orch. (New Brighton, July 7, 1907); A Lovely Little Dream for Strings and Harmonium (c. 1909); The Bamboula, rhapsodic dance (Norfolk, Conn., June 1, 1910); Petite suite de concert (1910); Violin Concerto (Norfolk, Conn., June 1912); From the Prairie, rhapsody (1914). chamber: (3) Hiawathan Sketches for Violin and Piano (1893); Piano Quintet (c. 1893); Clarinet Sonata (c. 1893); Nonet for Piano, Strings, and Woodwinds (1894); Suite de pièces for Violin, Piano, and Organ (1894); (5) Fantasiestiicke for String Quartet (1895); 2 Romantic Pieces for Violin and Piano (c. 1895); Clarinet Quintet (1895); String Quartet (1896); Gypsy Suite for Violin and Piano (1897); Valse Caprice for Violin and Piano (1898); Ballade for Violin and Piano (1907); Variations on an Original Theme for Cello (1907); Violin Sonata (1912); Variations for Cello and Piano (publ. 1918); also many piano pieces, including 2 Moorish Tone-pictures (1897); African Suite (1897); 3 Silhouettes (1897); 24 Negro Melodies (1905); (4) Scènes de ballet (1906); (5) Forest Scenes (1907); Three-fours, valse suite (1909). vocal: Scenes from The Song of Hiawatha, cantata (1: Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast for Tenor, Chorus, and Orch., London, Nov. 11, 1898; 2: The Death of Minnehaha for Soprano, Baritone, Chorus, and Orch., Hanley, Oct. 26, 1899; 3: Overture, Norwich, Oct. 6, 1899; 4: Hiawatha’s Departure for Soprano, Tenor, Baritone, Chorus, and Orch., London, March 22, 1900); The Soul’s Expression, 4 sonnets for Chorus and Orch. (Hereford, Sept. 13, 1900); The Blind Girl of Castél, cantata for Soprano, Baritone, Chorus, and Orch. (Leeds, Oct. 9, 1901); Meg Blane, rhapsody for Mezzo-soprano, Chorus, and Orch. (Sheffield, Oct. 3, 1902); The Atonement, sacred cantata for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. (Hereford, Sept. 10, 1903); 5 Choral Ballads for Baritone, Chorus, and Orch. (Norwich, Oct. 25, 1905); Kubla Khan, rhapsody for Mezzo-soprano, Chorus, and Orch. (1905); Endymion’s Dream, cantata for Soprano, Tenor, Chorus, and Orch. (1909; Brighton, Feb. 4, 1910); Bon-bon Suite, cantata for Baritone, Chorus, and Orch. (1909); A Tale of Old Japan, cantata for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. (London, Dec. 6, 1911); also works for Solo Voice, including Zara’s Ear-rings for Voice and Orch. (1895) and songs, part songs, and choruses with piano accompaniment.
W. Berwick Sayers, S. C.-T, Musician: His Life and Letters (London, 1915; 2nd éd., rev., 1927); J. Coleridge-Taylor, S. C.-T: A Memory Sketch (London, 1942); idem, C.-T: Genius and Musician (London, 1943); W. Tortolano, S. C.-T: Anglo-Black Composer, 1875–1912 (Metuchen, N.J., 1977); A. Coleridge-Taylor, The Heritage of S. C.-T.(London, 1979); J. Thompson, S. C.-T: The Development of His Compositional Style (Metuchen, N.J., 1994); G. Self, The Hiawatha Man: S. C.-T.(Brookfield, Vt., 1995).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire