18 August 2010

Tragic Tales: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

By Zoe Archer

Born in London in 1875, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was the son of an African man from Sierra Leone and an Englishwoman. His father, Daniel Taylor, was a London-trained doctor who lived five years in England. Britain, unlike the United States at this time, had no formalized segregation, and Dr. Taylor studied medicine at King's College in London, later qualifying as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, England. By contrast, Coleridge-Taylor's mother was the illegitimate daughter of a domestic servant. There is no evidence that Dr. Taylor and Alice Holmans ever married, but they did have a romantic relationship. She gave birth to Samuel on August 15, 1875.

It's worth noting that, during the Victorian period, interracial relationships were far more common in Britain than in the United States and the Caribbean--and, due to migration patterns and other factors, the majority of these interracial couples were comprised of black men and white women. The greater concern arose from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's possible illegitimacy rather than his biracial heritage, a fact which later biographers attempted to obscure.

Seven months before Samuel's birth, his father left England. It's entirely possible he never knew Alice was pregnant, and he never had any communication with his son. Samuel was raised by his mother and maternal grandfather in Croydon, a suburb of London. A family member was a professional musician, and music lessons were provided for the boy. Coleridge-Taylor showed an unusual aptitude for music, and was sponsored to the Royal College of Music at the age of fifteen. Despite this sponsorship, a large social gap existed between him and the other students, living, as he did, next to the railroad tracks and downwind from the slaughterhouse, and had never played a single note on a piano until he entered the college. Most of the other students had homes with their own pianos. Even after he began attendance, Coleridge-Taylor's instruments, such as his violin, were loaned to him.

He continued to show an exceptional musical ability, and in 1891, his composition In Thee, O Lord was published by the music publisher Novello. The company went on to publish a series of Coleridge-Taylor's pieces. He began to conduct the Croydon Conservatory Orchestra in 1895, and, following his graduation a year later, taught privately in Croydon, at Trinity College and at the Rochester Choral Society. The next few years saw Coleridge-Taylor producing a number of celebrated musical works, including Ballade in A Minor for the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, which also received tremendous acclaim for its London premier at the Crystal Palace.

Only weeks later, Coleridge-Taylor's piece Hiawatha's Wedding Feast premiered at the Royal College of Music. An ill Sir Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert & Sullivan, pushed himself to attend. The performance of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast made Coleridge-Taylor an international celebrity virtually overnight. Unfortunately, he never earned any royalty payments. Little knowing the success the piece would have, he had already sold the rights to Novello for the paltry sum of fifteen guineas.

Coleridge-Taylor composed two companion pieces to form the Hiawatha Trilogy, known as The Song of Hiawatha. His popularity continued to rise, and his original works were performed both in Britain and abroad. He took on numerous teaching, writing, composing, festival judging and performance engagements, as well as becoming a Professor of Composition at Trinity College of Music in London and conductor to the Handel Society. In the midst of this whirlwind of activity, he married Jessie Fleetwood-Walmisely (though her family objected to his mixed-race heritage), and the couple had two children, including a son aptly named Hiawatha.

He toured extensively in the United States, meeting privately with President Roosevelt, and was hailed by the black American community as a symbol of hope over oppression. He worked continuously in his many roles as teacher, composer, conductor and adjudicator.

In 1912, Coleridge-Taylor collapsed on the West Croydon train platform. He managed to make it home, but four days later, he succumbed to pneumonia brought about by exhaustion. At the time of his death, he was only 37. Hundreds turned out for his funeral, but because royalty payments to composers were both slight and rare, a memorial concert was held to raise money for his widow and children.

Jessie Coleridge-Taylor insisted that Novello refused to reliably grant her royalties on The Song of Hiawatha, her late husband's most commercially successful work. Two years later, the Performing Rights Society was formed in Great Britain. Its goal was to ensure musicians were paid fairly for their work. King George V granted Jessie Coleridge-Taylor an annual Civil List Pension of £100.

From 1928 until 1939, The Song of Hiawatha was lavishly performed every summer at the Royal Albert Hall. Coleridge-Taylor's reputation faded over the years, his work dismissed as "too commercial," but recently new attention and appreciation has arisen for the man hailed as "the Black Mahler."