Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: English composer known as the "African Mahler"

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in 1905.
Background information
Birth name Samuel Coleridge Taylor
Born August 15, 1875
Origin HolbornLondon
Died September 1, 1912 (aged 37)
Genres Classical
Occupations Composer, musician
Instruments Piano


Life and work

Coleridge-Taylor was born in 1875 in Holborn, London, to Alice Hare Martin, an English woman, and Dr Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, a Sierra Leonean Creole. They were not married. He was named Samuel Coleridge Taylor. His surname was Taylor, and his middle name of Coleridge was after the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His family called him Coleridge Taylor. He later affected the name Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, allegedly following a printer’s typographical error. Daniel Taylor returned to Africa by February 1875 and did not know that he had a son in London. He was appointed coroner for the British Empire in The Gambiain the late 1890s.
Coleridge-Taylor was brought up in Croydon by Martin and her father Benjamin Holmans. Martin’s brother was a professional musician. Taylor studied the violin at the Royal College of Music and composition under Charles Villiers Stanford (who would conduct the first performance of his Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in 1898.) He also taught and conducted the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire.
In 1899 Taylor married a fellow student at the RCM, Jessie Walmisley, despite her parents’ objection to his mixed race parentage. She left the college in 1893. They had a son Hiawatha (1900–1980) and a daughterAvril, born Gwendolyn (1903–1998).
By 1896, Coleridge-Taylor had earned a reputation as a composer. He was later helped by Edward Elgar, who recommended him to the Three Choirs Festival. There his Ballade in A minor was premièred. His early work was also guided by the influential music editor and critic August Jaeger of music publisher Novello; he told Elgar that Taylor was “a genius.”
His successes brought him a tour of the United States in 1904, which 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. Having met the American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in London, Taylor set some of his poems to music. Dunbar and other black people encouraged him to consider his Sierra Leonean ancestry and the music of the African continent.
Coleridge-Taylor was sometimes seen as shy, but effective in communicating when conducting. 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 a few days after collapsing at West Croydon railway station. He was buried in Bandon Hill Cemetery, Wallington, Surrey (today in the London Borough of Sutton). The inscription on the fine carved headstone includes a quotation from the composition Hiawatha, in words written by his close friend and poet Alfred Noyes:

Too young to die
his great simplicity
his happy courage
in an alien world
his gentleness
made all that knew him
love him.

His widow gave the impression that she was almost penniless but King George V granted her a pension of£100, evidence of the high regard in which the composer was held.[5] A memorial concert was held later in 1912 at the Royal Albert Hall and garnered £300. His estate was thus worth approximately the price of three houses, and there were royalties from compositions (but not from Hiawatha, which he had sold outright for 15 guineas).
Coleridge-Taylor’s work was later championed by Malcolm Sargent, who between 1928 and 1939 conducted ten seasons of a costumed ballet version of The Song of Hiawatha at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Choral Society (600 to 800 singers) and 200 dancers.


A 1912 obituary in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review

Coleridge-Taylor’s greatest success was undoubtedly hiscantata Hiawatha’s Wedding-feast, which was widely performed by choral groups in England during Coleridge-Taylor’s lifetime and in the decades after his death. Its popularity was rivalled only by the choral standards Handel’sMessiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. The composer soon followed Hiawatha’s Wedding-feast with two other cantatas about Hiawatha, The Death of Minnehaha and Hiawatha’s Departure; all three were published together, along with an Overture, as The Song of Hiawatha, Op. 30. The tremendously popular Hiawatha seasons at the Royal Albert Hall, which continued till 1939, were conducted by Sargent and involved hundreds of choristers, and scenery covering the organ loft. Hiawatha’s Wedding-feast is still occasionally revived.
Coleridge-Taylor also composed chamber music, anthems, and the African Dances for violin, among other works. ThePetite Suite de Concert is still regularly played. He set one poem by his near-namesake Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 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 en route – not, as legend has it, on the RMS Titanic but on another ship. The concerto has been recorded by Philippe Graffin and the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra under Michael Hankinson (nominated “Editor’s Choice” in the Gramophone Magazine), 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). It was also performed at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre in the autumn of 1998 byJohn McLaughlin Williams and William Thomas as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the composition of Hiawatha’s Wedding-Feast.
Lists of Coleridge-Taylor’s compositions and recordings of his work and of the many articles, papers and books about Coleridge-Taylor’s life and legacy are available through the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation.

Posthumous publishing

In 1999, freelance music editor Patrick Meadows identified three important chamber works by Coleridge-Taylor had never been printed nor made widely available to musicians. A handwritten performing parts edition of thePiano Quintet, from the original in the Royal College of Music (RCM) Library, had been prepared earlier by violinist Martin Anthony Burrage of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The first modern performance of the Piano Quintet was given on 7 November 2001 by Burrage’s chamber music group, Ensemble Liverpool / Live-A-Music in Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. The lunchtime recital included the Fantasiestücke. Live recordings of this performance are lodged with the Royal College of Music and the British Library. The artists were Andrew Berridge (violin), Martin Anthony (Tony) Burrage (violin), Joanna Lacey (viola), Michael Parrott (cello) and John Peace (piano).
After receiving copies of the work from the RCM in London, Patrick Meadows made printed playing editions of the NonetPiano Quintet, and Piano Trio. The works were 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 some 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 NonetFantasiestücke for string quartet and Six Negro Folksongs for piano trio, which were released in 1998 by 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.
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.

Thelma, the missing opera

Coleridge-Taylor’s only large-scale operatic work, Thelma, was long believed to have been lost; as recently as 1995, Geoffrey Self in his biography of Coleridge-Taylor, The Hiawatha Man, stated that the manuscript ofThelma had not been located, and that the piece may have been destroyed by its creator. Whilst researching for a PhD on the life and music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Catherine Carr unearthed the manuscripts ofThelma in the British Library. She assembled a libretto and catalogued the opera in her thesis, presenting a first critical examination of the work by a thorough investigation of the discovered manuscripts (including copious typeset examples). The work subsequently appeared as such on the catalogue of the British Library.
Thelma is a 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. It is possible that he had read Marie Corelli’s 1887 “Nordic” novel Thelma (it appears that the name ‘Thelma’ may have been created by Corelli for her heroine). Coleridge-Taylor composed Thelma between 1907 and 1909; it is alternatively entitled The Amulet.
The full score and vocal score in the British Library are both in the composer’s hand – 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. Patrick Meadows and Lionel Harrison have prepared a type-set full score, vocal score and libretto (the librettist is uncredited and may be Coleridge-Taylor himself). As to the heroine of the title, the composer changed her name to ‘Freda’ in both full and vocal scores (although in the full score he occasionally forgets himself and writes ‘Thelma’ instead of ‘Freda’). Perhaps Coleridge-Taylor changed the name of his heroine (and might have changed the name of the opera, had it been produced) to avoid creating the assumption that his work was a treatment of Corelli’s then very popular novel. Since that precaution is scarcely necessary today, Meadows and Harrison decided to revert to the originalThelma.
There are minor discrepancies between the full score and the vocal score (the occasional passage occurring in different keys in the two, for example), but nothing that would inhibit the production of a complete, staged performance.
Thelma received its world première in February 2012 in Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre, the centenary year of the composer’s death, performed by Surrey Opera in a new transcription by Stephen Anthony Brown. It was conducted by Jonathan Butcher, directed by Christopher Cowell and designed by Bridget Kimak. Joanna Weeks sang the title role with Alberto Sousa as Eric and Håkan Vramsmo as Carl. Pegasus Opera also intends to stage the work in 2012.

List of compositions

With opus number

  • Piano Quintet in G minor, Op.1 – 1893
  • Nonet in F minor for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, contrabass and piano, Op.2 – 1894
  • Suite for Violin and Organ (or piano), Op.3 (Suite de Piêces)- 1893
  • Ballade in D minor, Op.4 – 1895
  • Five Fantasiestücke, Op.5 – 1896
  • Little Songs for Little Folks, Op. 6 – 1898
  • Zara’s Earrings, Op.7 – 1895
  • Symphony in A minor, Op.8 – 1896
  • Two Romantic Pieces, Op.9 – 1896
  • Quintet in F sharp minor, Op.10 – 1895
  • Southern Love songs, Op.12 – 1896
  • String Quartet in D minor, Op.13 – 1896 (lost)
  • Legend (Concertstück), Op.14
  • Land of the Sun, Op.15 – 1897
  • Three Hiawatha Sketches for violin and piano, Op.16 – 1897
  • African Romances (P.L. Dunbar) Op,17 – 1897
  • Morning and Evening Service in F, Op. 18 – 1899
  • Two Moorish Tone-Pictures, Op. 19 – 1897
  • Gypsy Suite, Op.20 – 1898
  • Part Songs, Op.21 – 1898
  • Four Characteristic Waltzes, Op.22 – 1899
  • Valse-Caprice, Op.23 – 1898
  • In Memoriam, three rhapsodies for low voice and piano, op.24 – 1898
  • Dream Lovers, Operatic Romance, Op.25 – 1898
  • The Gitanos, canata-operetta, Op.26 – 1898
  • Violin Sonata in D minor, Op.28 – ?1898 (pub. 1917)
  • Three songs. Op.29 – 1898
  • The Song of Hiawatha, Op.30 (Overture to The Song of Hiawatha, 1899; Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, 1898; The Death of Minnehaha, 1899; Hiawatha’s Departure, 1900)
  • Three Humoresques, Op.31 – 1898
  • Ballade in A minor, Op.33 – 1898
  • African Suite, Op.35 – 1899
  • Six Songs, Op.37
  • Three Silhouettes, Op.38 – 1904
  • Romance in G, Op.39 – 1900
  • Solemn Prelude, Op.40 – 1899
  • Scenes From An Everyday Romance, Op.41 – 1900
  • The Soul’s Expression, four sonnets, Op.42 – 1900
  • The Blind Girl of Castél-Cuillé, Op.43
  • Idyll, Op.44 – 1901
  • Six American Lyrics, Op.45 – 1903
  • Concert Overture, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Op.46 – 1901
  • Hemo Dance, scherzo, Op.47(1) – 1902
  • Herod, incidental music, Op.47(2) – 1901
  • Meg Blane, Rhapsody of the Sea, Op.48 – 1902
  • Ullyses, incidental music, Op.49 – 1902
  • Three Song Poems, Op.50 – 1904
  • Four Novelletten, Op.51(1?) – 1903
  • Ethiopia Saluting the Colours, march, Op.51(2?) – 1902
  • The Atonement,sacred cantata, Op.53 – 1903
  • Five Choral Ballads, Op.54 – 1904
  • Moorish Dance, Op.55 – 1904
  • Three Cameos for Piano, Op.56 – 1904
  • Six Sorrow Songs, Op.57 – 1904
  • Four African Dances, Op. 58 – 1904
  • Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, Op.59(1) – 1905
  • Romance. Op.59(2) – 1904
  • Kubla Khan, rhapsody, Op.61 – 1905
  • Nero, incidental music, Op.62 – 1906
  • Symphonic Variations on an African Air Op. 63 – 1906
  • Scenes de Ballet, Op.64 – 1906
  • Endymion’s Dream, one act opera, Op.65 – 1910
  • Forest Scenes, Op.66 – 1907
  • Part Songs, Op.67 – 1905
  • Bon-Bon suite, Op.68 – 1908
  • Sea Drift, Op.69 – 1908
  • Faust, incidental music, Op.70 – 1908
  • Valse Suite: “Three fours“, Op.71- 1909
  • Thelma, opera in three acts, Op.72 – 1907-9
  • Ballade in C minor, Op.73 – 1909
  • Forest of Wild Thyme, incidental music, Op.74 (five numbers) – 1911-1925
  • Rhapsodic Dance, The Bamboula, Op. 75 – 1911
  • A tale of old Japan, Op.76 – 1911
  • Petite Suite de Concert, Op. 77 – 1911
  • Three Impromptus, Op.78 – 1911
  • Othello, incidental music, Op.79 – 1911
  • Violin Concerto in G minor, Op.80 – 1912
  • Two Songs for Baritone Voice, Op.81 – 1913
  • Hiawatha Ballet in five scenes, Op.82 – 1920

Without opus number

  • The Lee Shore
  • Eulalie
  • Variations for Cello and Piano


  • Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Chamber Music – Hawthorne String Quartet. Label: Koch International 3-7056-2
  • Hiawatha – Welsh National Opera, – Cond. Kenneth Alwyn, soloist Bryn Terfel Label: Decca 458 591-2
  • Piano & Clarinet Quintets – The Nash Ensemble Label: Hyperion CDA67590
  • Violin Sonata; African Dances; Hiawathan Sketches; Petite Suite de Concert – David Juritz(violin) Michael Dussek (piano) Label: Epoch CDLX 7127
  • Sir Malcolm Sargent conducts British Music includes Othello Suite – New Symphony Orch. Label: Beulah1PD13
  • The Romantic Violin Concerto Volume 5 includes Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 80 – Anthony Marwood(violin), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins(cond). Label: Hyperion CDA67420

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