Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), Britain’s Foremost Black Classical Composer: The Centenary Legacy
Just a few days after this year’s Slavery Remembrance Day, on 23 August, we mark also the centenary legacy of the black British music composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who died one hundred years ago, on 1 September 1912.
What follows is a version of the article which, as Executive Chair of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation, I posted on the Huffington Post UK website to acknowledge this significant milestone.
Only 37 years old at his death, Coleridge-Taylor was at the height of his career, in the midst of plans to visit musicians he admired in Europe (he was learning German) alongside his never-ending duties as a teacher, conductor, festival adjudicator and composer. He had already travelled to the USA three times; he had twelve years previously, aged only 25, become a founder-supporter in 1900 of the new London-based Pan-African Conference (later, Congress); and already he had some 100 full musical works, many of them substantial, to his credit.
To modern observers, taking antibiotics for granted, it feels particularly sad that the cause of Coleridge-Taylor’s death was simply a chest infection: he was always over-worked, and it’s said a heavy smoker, and he caught a chill awaiting a train in his hometown of Croydon. With better health this unique man of music might well have lived into contemporary living memory. It would have been fascinating to see how his thinking developed, both in music and in respect of equality, the other field in which in his short life Coleridge-Taylor made an outstanding and compassionate contribution.
Nonetheless, to most followers of classical music Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is known only as the creator of the Song of Hiawatha trilogy, that ever-present element of the annual calendar of the Royal Albert Hall and many other concert venues around Britain in the 1920s and 30s and well beyond. The image of native American squaws and head-dressed chieftains is embedded in our perception of Coleridge-Taylor the composer; and yet, whilst Hiawatha is indeed a fine addition to the repertoire, it is by no means his only potential contribution to the classical canon.
As we demonstrate on the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation website – where a full list of works and recordings, generously donated by Dr Dominique Rene de Lerma, may be found – there is beyond Hiawatha some significant early chamber music, a whole range of vocal scores (some of them substantial) and even a violin concerto and some full symphonic works: impressive by any standards as the output for someone still in his thirties when he died.
But there are also other aspects of the life of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor which make him special and deserve much greater acknowledgement.
Born in London in 1875, illegitimate and of mixed race, the boy Samuel took courage to make the most of every opportunity to take his formidable talents forward. His complex extended family supported him as best they could and by his early teens Coleridge-Taylor’s musical gifts were recognised by others too. He gained sponsorship to attend the newly-established Royal College of Music aged only 17, and, produced his first few opus-listed works the following year. (How withering to repute is time; received to acclaim when initially presented, we discovered Coleridge-Taylor’s Opus 1 Piano Quintet, probably unperformed since 1895, buried deep in the RCM archive a full century later.)
But to return to the chronology. Just before the end of Victoria’s reign, Coleridge-Taylor’s concern for fairness and decency led him to engage in the increasingly urgent calls for racial equality. Whilst Victorian London was more varied of skin colour than some imagine, Coleridge-Taylor nonetheless knew at first hand both of discrimination by ‘race’, and of the shared objective by others of a more even playing field for all; and he had by then formed a friendship with the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who became a major influence on the composer’s thinking. Hence also Coleridge-Taylor’s involvement in the Pan-African Conference of 1900, held in Westminster Town Hall, London from July 23rd to the 25th, and timed to take place just before the Paris Exposition in order to allow tourists of African descent to attend both events, and focused on persuading world power governments to introduce legislation to abolish racial discrimination.
It was also at the Pan-African Conference of 1900 that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (and his friend John Archer of Liverpool, who became the first black Mayor of Battersea) met the writer W.E.B. DuBois, who was during the next few years to prove a great influence on Samuel as his contacts with the United States developed. How, had Coleridge-Taylor lived longer, this collaboration would have influenced the later Pan-African Congresses we can only surmise.
And so, one hundred years after his death, the story and legacy of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the British child of mixed heritage born with little initial privilege but so much to offer, now unfolds.
There is much still to tell, as the AfriClassical website and other e-media such as the Longfellow Chorus of Maine, USA report. This is a story told at all levels: local (Croydon and London), national (the UK), the USA and truly internationally. A considerable amount of Coleridge-Taylor’s repertoire has recently become available, but much remains still to be explored. The legacy of his support for a fairer world will doubtless likewise continue to be a matter of interest for scholars and activists alike for decades to come.
For our part, having worked since the 1990s to bring unknown music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to public performance, the establishment two years ago of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation (a Community Interest Company of which I am the founding Executive Chair) has offered a new way forward. We have ensured there is room for exchange and debate between musicians, historians and scholars across the world, we seek always to achieve wider community engagement, and we have positioned to look forward as well as back – most recently by commissioning a new Nonet from the composer Richard Gordon-Smith (himself a son of Croydon) which embraces both the instrumentation and something of the essence of the work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
What comes next remains to be seen. September 1st 2012 will pass as a day to reflect and remember, but it is also a milestone in the journey to a better understanding of a young man who died a century ago but leaves still the gifts of talents and ambitions pursued, decency and hope. That is why, as well as looking backwards to the past, we must look forward to the future.
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