Black History Month: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who died in Croydon now more than a century ago, remains by general consensus Britain’s greatest black classical music composer.

Of course there were and are other outstanding black British performers and composers, men and women, variously in classical, jazz, popular and other genres, but it is Coleridge-Taylor, the illegitimate son of a young white woman and a doctor from Sierra Leone of African-American descent who probably never became aware of his child’s existence, who is held in greatest esteem in the ‘English’ classical tradition.

In significant part Coleridge-Taylor’s reputation rests on an early work in 1898 for which he received scant financial reward, but which for decades in the early twentieth century furnished communities throughout the nation, all without television (or sometimes even radio), an opportunity for magnificent jamborees. People of all stations and ages dressed up in so-called ‘Indian’ costumes and paraded the streets in procession to enjoy performances of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast – the first of three sequential cantatas comprising Op.30 which relates Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem from 1855 about Hiawatha, a young Native American, and his love for the beautiful Minnehaha.

It might seem a little odd that a black child growing up in the outskirts of London (his family moved from the city in his infancy when their poor housing was knocked down) should be fascinated by Longfellow’s fictional Iroquois hero, a young man on the southern shore of Lake Superior and more of legend and imagination than historical evidence.

Perhaps however his creative engagement in a story so far removed from English conventions of the time is explained by the facts of Coleridge-Taylor’s upbringing. Whilst certainly in the late 1800s there were black citizens in London, including doctors, lawyers and the like, for most of his childhood Samuel’s physical presence differed from most of those he knew. He was often the only ‘African’ looking child in his group, albeit any feelings of difference were probably eased by active support from friends and neighbours for his widely admired musical gifts. Here then was a sensitive young person whose interpretations of his distinctiveness were filtered via manifest talent.

For Samuel Coleridge-Taylor the prime concern was always the music. In his own words, ‘I want to be nothing in the world except what I am – a musician.’ Nonetheless, his birth-father’s origins meant there was always a fascination with matters African, and from that followed interests in Native American life and even in things Norse (Thelma, Op.72, 1909, the opera unearthed a century later by Catherine Carr) and Japanese (A Tale of Old Japan, Op. 76, 1910).

But before these works, in 1900 Coleridge-Taylor became the youngest signatory to call on various heads of state to ‘acknowledge and protect the rights of people of African descent’, in a resolution arising from the inaugural Pan-African Conference, held over three days in the Westminster Hall, London. Along with SC-T as the youngest delegate were eminences such as the American sociologist, historian and civil rights activists William (‘W.E.B.’) Du Bois, and John Archer, the son of Liverpool who became the first black mayor of Battersea.

Even prior to the Pan-African Conference, in 1896, SC-T’s enthusiasm for ‘racial’ equality had been fuelled by a meeting in London with the American poet and black activist Paul Laurence Dunbar, with whom he collaborated two years later on a still unrecognised stage work, Dream Lovers; and other compositions such as the African Suite (Op.35, 1898) also feature Africa and/or African Americans. Likewise, the Overture to Hiawatha incorporates the spiritual ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’.

At age 15, in 1890, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor became a student at the then-new Royal College of Music, three years later in 1898 he produced and performed his first works, including the Piano Quintet, Op.1 (rediscovered a century later by RLPO violinist Martin Anthony Burrage), and just five years after that he made the first of three visits to the United States, lauded by musicians of the New York Philharmonic, supported by the beneficent Mr and Mrs Carl Stoeckel, and meeting President Theodore Roosevelt. But even then, reflecting his admiration for the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Ohio, he insisted before performances were agreed that there should be black musicians as well as white. Equality was never far from the composer’s mind.

But for his heavy smoking habit and the absence of antibiotics in 1912, aged just 37, Coleridge-Taylor might easily have survived to see his concerns for equality positioned squarely at the centre of global political discourse. He might have come to appreciate the emerging role of jazz in putting black musicians in the public eye. He might have lived long enough for his reputation as a chamber music composer to be taken forward, as he deserved.

The legacy of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is at last becoming a focus of attention. We need to make sure that both his music and his earnest desire for equal rights are together in the spotlight.

Hilary Burrage