History Hunt: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

This week, we’re bouncing back to Britain and forward a decade to meet still another composer who succeeded in spite of constant prejudice: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Coleridge-Taylor was born on August 15, 1875. (His name was originally Samuel Coleridge Taylor, but later in his life, when a publisher made a typo, he liked the look of Coleridge-Taylor so much, he kept it!) His father had been studying medicine in England, but not long after Coleridge-Taylor’s birth, he returned to his home of Sierra Leone. It was too difficult for him to work in England: few people in those days wanted to be treated by a Black doctor, no matter how skilled he was.

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone, home of Coleridge-Taylor’s father.

Coleridge-Taylor and his mother, who was white, stayed behind in England, and not long after he was born, his mother moved to Croydon.

It was here that Coleridge-Taylor’s good fortune began. While he had been born in one of the poorest areas of London, Croydon was a much better place to grow up for a young man–especially since this was where he began taking his first music lessons. His first music teacher was his grandfather, Benjamin Holmans, who taught him the basics of how to play the violin; when he was five, Joseph Beckwith started giving him formal lessons. He was also taught by Colonel Herbert A. Walters, whose choir he later joined when he was ten years old.

In addition to singing and playing the violin, Coleridge-Taylor was also a pianist. When he was fourteen, he finally managed to save up for a very cheap piano. It wasn’t much, but at least now he had an instrument to play on. Though it wasn’t his main instrument by any means, he kept up his practice all the same.

When Coleridge-Taylor was just fifteen, Colonel Walters introduced him to the head of the Royal College of Music, which was at the time a brand new music school. Luckily for him, he won a scholarship that made it possible for him to attend and he was soon going to school with students who would become some of the best known British composers of the late 19th and early 20th century.

His original intent, when he first started going to the school, was to study the violin. However, Coleridge-Taylor soon found his calling: composition. While he was still a violin student, he published his first composition, Te Deum. The next year, in honour of Colonel Walters, he published In Thee, O Lord, the first in a series of compositions. When he was seventeen, he officially became a composition student. Within a year, his works were being performed; within two, he was winning prizes. He also started conducting the Croydon Conservatory Orchestra in his hometown. It was a brave step: Coleridge-Taylor was known to be shy–so shy, in fact, that he might actually have hidden from everyone after the first performance of his compositions!

Still, even as he was being recognised for his tremendous talent, Coleridge-Taylor was facing the same racism and bullying that had been a part of his life since he was a schoolboy (and that would continue for the rest of his life). But, at the Royal College of Music, he was lucky enough to have friends to stand by his side. As Mike Phillips of the British Library Online reports:

“There is a typical and well-established story of his time at the RCM when [Coleridge-Taylor’s composition teacher,] Stanford, overhearing another student deliver a racial insult, rounded on the culprit and told him that Coleridge-Taylor had “more music in his little finger” than the other student had in “his whole body”.”

In addition to being shy as a young man, Coleridge-Taylor seems to have also held himself to high standards. Shortly after his graduation, he tried to burn a composition that his teacher hadn’t liked. Luckily for the musical world, a close friend of his grabbed it and saved it!

Fame as a composer found Coleridge-Taylor quickly: he was only twenty-three when he came into the spotlight. First came his Ballade in A Minor, which was a huge success at its debut and when it was performed at the prestigious Crystal Palace. Almost immediately afterward came an even greater success–Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. Coleridge-Taylor used the white poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” as a foundation for his music. The poem was very popular at the time, even if it was a very inaccurate depiction of First Nations legends.

The British public as a whole loved Coleridge-Taylor’s composition–for some time, it rivalled Handel’s Messiah in popularity! Famous composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan), though he was very ill at the time, refused to miss its debut, saying, “I’m coming to hear your music to-night even if I have to be carried.” (Phillips)

The next year was a busy one for Coleridge-Taylor. With the success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the Royal Choral Society asked Coleridge-Taylor to compose a sequel, which he did within the year. He was also married to his sweetheart, Jessie Fleetwood-Walmisely, a pianist who was one of his schoolmates at the Royal College of Music.

Over the following years, Coleridge-Taylor was kept very busy. He composed, conducted, lectured on music, taught lessons, helped organise the first Pan-African Conference in London, started a newspaper with a friend (The African & Orient Review)–and became a father! He also started funding the Croydon Symphony Orchestra out of his own pocket when it ran out of money.

He had the opportunity to tour the United States three times, where he was extremely popular. In fact, the group that invited him in the first place was the Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society! He even got to meet President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House! And while racism in the United States during that time was an even bigger problem than in the United Kingdom, while Coleridge-Taylor was there, he was actually “allowed” to conduct white orchestras–something that was normally unheard of.

In spite of Coleridge-Taylor’s incredible popularity during his lifetime, it’s only recently that his music is being rediscovered. In fact, his opera, Thelma, was only found again in 2012 by Catherine Carr. I hope that in the years to come, we’ll start hearing more and more of Coleridge-Taylor’s music once more.

Here’s the last movement of his Petite Suite de Concert, “La Tarantelle Frétillante” (The Wiggling Tarantella):

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To Learn More (Sources):
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) by Mike Phillips
Black Mahler: The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor on AfriClassical.com
A Note On Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Early Work at the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation website
“I want to be nothing in the world except what I am – a musician.” (Discovering ‘Thelma’, Coleridge-Taylor’s only opera) at the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation website
Royal College of Music at Wikipedia.org
The Song of Hiawatha at Wikipedia.org

 

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