Composers of Color, part ll: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
Named after the poet and referred to as the African Mahler by American musicians, Samuel was the son of an Englishwoman and a doctor from Sierra Leone. Brought up in a working class neighborhood with music all around him (his grandfather taught him violin), he entered the Royal College of Music at 15. Soon thereafter his interest shifted to composing. At such a young age his works attracted attention, including the Clarinet Quintet, Opus 10, written in 1895. When he wrote it his teacher dared him not to be influenced by his favorite composer, Brahms. Here is the slow movement.
Sir Edward Elgar gave him a plug when he recommended Taylor to the Three Choirs Festival. The Ballade for Orchestra was premiered there in 1898. Here it is, accompanied by some nice photos.
What put Taylor on the map for good was his Song of Hiawatha, Opus 30, a set of three cantatas of which the first – Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast – became instantly popular. Choruses all over Britain performed the work for decades to come and its success rivaled that of Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. From it we hear ‘Onaway! Awake Beloved’ for tenor and orchestra.
The success of Hiawatha earned Taylor three tours to the United States, where in 1904 he met with Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. He conducted the piece in numerous cities across the country. He also became fascinated with the heritage of his father, whose ancestors were slaves in America and fought for the British during the Revolution. In “24 Negro Melodies,” Taylor, in his own words stated “what Brahms has done for Hungarian music, Dvorak for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro Melodies.” Here is one of them – Let Us Cheer the Weary Traveler.
Coleridge-Taylor (the hyphen attributed to a typo, which then stuck) spent his life promoting Pan-Africanism and was seen as an icon of the movement and its shared commonality of culture and beliefs. In early 20th century black communities, his name was as well known as those of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fifty years later. Unfortunately financial struggles were always hovering. He sold the rights to Song of Hiawatha way too soon, and for a song – 15 guineas to be exact. Financial stress was surely a factor when he succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 37. On his tombstone are these words from his close friend Alfred Noyes, the poet: “Too young to die: his great simplicity, his happy courage in an alien world, his gentleness, made all that knew him love him.”
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