Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (15 August 1875 – 1 September 1912) was an English composer who achieved such success he was called the "African Mahler".


Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn, London, to a Sierra Leonean Krio father, Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, and an English mother, Alice Hare Martin. They were not married and he returned to Africa by February 1875.

His father was appointed in the late 1890s coroner for the British Empire in the Gambia. His son was brought up in Croydon by Martin and her father Benjamin Holmans, whose other son was a professional musician. The father was unaware of his son's existence. He studied the violin at the Royal College of Music then composition under Charles Villiers Stanford who conducted the first performance of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, and he also taught and conducted the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire. He married Jessie Walmisley, a fellow student of his at the RCM who left there in 1893, in 1899 despite her parents' objection to his mixed race parentage. By her he had a son, Hiawatha (1900-1980) and a daughter, Avril, born Gwendolyn (1903-1998).

He had earned a reputation as a composer in 1896, later helped by Edward Elgar who recommended him to the Three Choirs Festival which premiered his "Ballade in A Minor". His early work was also guided by the influential music editor and critic August Jaeger of music publisher Novello, who told Elgar that Coleridge (as his family called him) was "a genius." His successes brought him a tour of the United States in 1904, which in turn increased his interest in his racial heritage. He sought to do for African music what Johannes Brahms did for Hungarian music and Antonín Dvořák for Bohemian music. He had met the American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in London and set some of his poems to music, and was also encouraged by Dunbar and other black people to consider his ancestry and the music of the African continent.

Coleridge-Taylor was sometimes seen as shy, but effective in communicating when conducting. He was very kind. Composers were not handsomely paid for their efforts and often sold the rights to works outright, thereby missing out on royalties (a scheme which became widespread only in 1911) which went to publishers who always risked their investments. He was much sought after for adjudicating at festivals.

Coleridge-Taylor was 37 when he died of pneumonia. His widow gave the impression that she was almost penniless but King George V granted her a pension of GB£100, evidence of the composer's high regard. A memorial concert was held later in 1912 at the Royal Albert Hall and gathered £300. His estate was thus worth approx the price of three houses, and there were royalties from compositions (not Hiawatha which he had sold)

Coleridge-Taylor's work was later championed by Sir Malcolm Sargent who conducted ten seasons of a costumed ballet version of "Hiawatha" at the Royal Albert Hall between 1928 and 1939 with the Royal Choral Society (600 to 800 singers) and 200 dancers.


Coleridge-Taylor's greatest success was perhaps his cantata "Hiawatha's Wedding-feast", which was widely performed by choral groups in England during Coleridge-Taylor's lifetime and into the present day, with a popularity rivalled only by chorus standards George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" and Felix Mendelssohn's "Elijah". He followed this with several other pieces about Hiawatha: "The Death of Minnehaha", "Overture to The Song of Hiawatha" and "Hiawatha's Departure". The "Hiawatha" seasons at the Royal Albert Hall were conducted by Sargent and were tremendously popular, involving hundreds of choristers and scenery covering the organ loft. The concerts ended in 1939.

He also completed an array of chamber music, anthems, and "African Dances" for violin, among other works. The "Petite Suite de Concert" is still regularly played. As well, he set to music one poem by his near-namesake, "The Legend of Kubla Khan".

Coleridge-Taylor was greatly admired by African-Americans; in 1901, a 200-voice African-American chorus was founded in Washington, D.C., named the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society. He visited the USA three times receiving great acclaim and earned the title the African Mahler from the white orchestral musicians in New York in 1910.

Coleridge-Taylor composed a violin concerto for the American violinist Maud Powell, the American performance of which was subject to rewriting because the parts were lost - the legend says the RMS "Titanic" but they went on another ship. It has been recorded by Philippe Graffin and the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Anthony Marwood and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins (on Hyperion Records) and Lorraine McAslan and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite (on Lyrita). The concerto was also performed at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre in the fall of 1998 by John McLaughlin Williams and William Thomas as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the composition of "Hiawatha's Wedding-Feast".

Posthumous publishing

In 1999, freelance music editor Patrick Meadows discovered that three important chamber works by Coleridge-Taylor had apparently never been printed and made available to musicians. After receiving copies from the Royal College of Music in London, he made playing editions of the Nonet, Piano Quintet, and Piano Trio. The works were then performed in Meadows's regular chamber music festival on the island of Majorca, and were well-received by the public as well as the performers. The first modern performances of these works were done in the early 1990s by the Boston, Massachusetts-based Coleridge Ensemble, led by William Thomas of Phillips Academy, Andover. This group subsequently made world premiere recordings of the "Nonet", "Fantasiestücke" for string quartet and "Six Negro Folksongs" for piano trio which were released in 1998 from Afka Records. Thomas, a champion of lost works by black composers, also revived Coleridge's "Hiawatha's Wedding feast" in a performance commemorating the composition's 100th anniversary with the Cambridge Community Chorus at Harvard's Sanders Theatre in the spring of 1998. [cite news | author= | title=Concert to Feature Centennial Performance of Work by Composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor | url= | work=Harvard University Gazette | date=15 October 1998 | accessdate=2008-02-08]

The Nash Ensemble's recording of the Piano Quintet was released in 2007.

In 2006, Meadows finished engraving the first edition of Coleridge-Taylor's "Symphony in A minor." He has also finished transcribing from the RCM manuscript the "Haytian Dances", a work virtually identical to the "Noveletten", but with a fifth movement inserted by Coleridge-Taylor, based on the Scherzo of the symphony. This work is for string orchestra, tambourine, and triangle.

When searching through the collection of Coleridge-Taylor’s manuscripts lodged in the British Library, Lionel Harrison (Patrick Meadows’ proof-reading assistant) unearthed the score of Coleridge-Taylor’s three-act grand opera ‘Thelma’, long thought to have been either lost, or destroyed by its composer but listed on the Library's web. Thelma is a Nordic saga of deceit, magic, retribution and the triumph of love over wickedness. The composer has followed Richard Wagner’s manner in eschewing the established ‘numbers’ opera format, preferring to blend recitative, aria and ensemble into a seamless whole. The title Thelma is curious in that there is no character of that name in the piece. It seems originally to have been called ‘The Amulet’. It is possible that the composer had read Marie Corelli’s 1887 Nordic novel Thelma (it appears that the name ‘Thelma’ was created by Corelli for her heroine).

The full score and a vocal score (both manuscripts in the composer’s hand) are in the British Library – the full score is unbound but complete (save that the vocal parts do not have the words after the first few folios) but the vocal score is bound (in three volumes) and complete with words. Harrison has prepared a libretto from the vocal score (no mean feat, considering Coleridge-Taylor’s legendarily indecipherable handwriting!) The librettist is uncredited and may be Coleridge-Taylor himself.

There are some very minor discrepancies between the full score and the vocal score (the occasional passage occurring in different keys in the two, for example) but nothing which would inhibit the production of a complete, staged performance. Patrick Meadows is currently preparing an edition of Thelma with the keen hope of securing a staging on or before the anniversary of the composer’s death in 2012.


*cite book | last=Reid | first=Charles | title=Malcolm Sargent: a biography | location=London | publisher=Hamish Hamilton Ltd | year=1968 | isbn=0241913160
*cite book | last=Self | first= Geoffrey | coauthors= | title=The Hiawatha Man: the Life & Work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor | location=Aldershot, England | publisher=Scolar Press | year=1995 | isbn=0859679837

External links

* [] for Coleridge-Taylor and most recent book about him: cite book | last=Elford| first= Charles| coauthors= | title=Black Mahler: The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story| location=London, England | publisher=Grosvenor House Publishing Ltd| year=2008| isbn=9781906210786
* [ Soundpost website]
* [ Four characteristic waltzes. Op. 22.] at the Sibley Music Library Digital Scores Collection
* [ Five and twenty sailormen] at the Sibley Music Library Digital Scores Collection
* [ Concerto in G minor for violin & orchestra, op. 80] at the Sibley Music Library Digital Scores Collection
* [ Organ music, Selections] at the Sibley Music Library Digital Scores Collection
* [ Sonata in D minor for violin and piano, op. 28] at the Sibley Music Library Digital Scores Collection
* [ Variations in B minor for violoncello & piano] at the Sibley Music Library Digital Scores Collection
*IMSLP|id=Coleridge-Taylor%2C_Samuel|cname=Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

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