Samuel Coleridge-Taylor


Born: August 15, 1875 Died: September 1, 1912
Remembered today as the composer of the once enormously popular cantata Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, the career and music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor are -- more, even, than Elgar's -- emblematic of the Edwardian era in its opulence and its squalor. The son of a Negro doctor from Sierra Leone and an Englishwoman, he rose above the constrictions of class and race to become one of the most acclaimed composers of his time.

Musically precocious, Coleridge-Taylor's talent was recognized early and supported by a series of patrons who saw him through composition studies with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music. While still a student, his Clarinet Quintet (1895) achieved critical praise and, through the good offices of Stanford, performance in Berlin by the Joseph Joachim Quartet. A meeting with the American Negro poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, on a reading tour in England in 1896, prompted a lifelong preoccupation with "African" themes, including a number of songs to lyrics by Dunbar. Upon graduation from the RCM in 1897, Coleridge-Taylor embarked upon the poorly paid, precarious career of composer, teacher, adjudicator of musical competitions, and conductor which took him throughout England and Wales and led, eventually, to visits to the United States in 1904, 1906, and 1910. His marriage to Jessie Walmisley on December 30, 1899, and the birth of their children, Hiawatha in 1900 and Avril (née Gwendolen) in 1903, brought, with happiness, increased responsibilities.

His first break came when Elgar suggested Coleridge-Taylor for a commission from the prestigious Three Choirs Festival to be held at Gloucester in 1898. The performance there of his attractive orchestral Ballade in A minor proved a decisive hit while demonstrating a ready assimilation of Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and, above all, Dvorák. Meanwhile, Coleridge-Taylor had composed Hiawatha's Wedding Feast for chorus and orchestra and -- still an obscure musician -- accepted the sum of £15.15 outright for it from the music publishing firm Novello. Its premiere in a Stanford-led concert at the RCM on November 11, 1898, launched what may be said to have been a cataclysmic success, with performances following rapidly in England, throughout the United States and Canada, and in venues as unlikely as New Zealand and South Africa. Commissions and invitations to conduct poured in, though small fees and the composer's carelessness with money kept financial security an elusive goal. Pressure to produce yet other large, earnest works for the great choral festivals resulted in such stillborn efforts as The Blind Girl of Castel Cuille (1901) and Meg Blane (1902). From 1900 through 1911, he also wrote incidental music for some half-dozen plays, five of which were staged by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Innumerable practical details inseparable from concert-giving, and the constant uphill struggle against rank amateurism, also took their toll. The year 1905 saw the publication of Twenty-four Negro Melodies for piano by the American firm Oliver Ditson, with a long, glowing preface by Booker T. Washington. In the final years of Coleridge-Taylor's brief life, the spontaneity of his early music returned with a new deftness in handling -- an impassioned blitheness rife with happy invention -- in such things as the cantata Bon-bon Suite (1909), the Petite Suite de concert (1910), and the Violin Concerto. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor died of pneumonia, exacerbated by chronic overwork.

If his best music hovers between the concert hall, the palm court, and the drawing room, it may nevertheless be said to represent a gentility and graciousness, poise and sentiment, elegance and flair for which there will always be an ardently nostalgic audience.
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