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06 September 2021

For this guest blog post, Stapleford Granary CEO Kate Romano explores the life and music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, one of the most famous and influential composers of his time.

 

Who was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor?

 

‘The Black Mahler’ they called him in the USA… ‘the most gifted composer of his generation’ said Elgar…  With a name that trips off the tongue, thanks to its connection with the famous poet, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a mixed-race child of an unmarried woman living in Victorian London. He died at just 37 in 1912, and in the early 1900s he was one of the most famous composers in England before he and his music slipped into obscurity.  

 

Most people come across Coleridge-Taylor via his cantata, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, which was as popular as Handel’s Messiah or Elgar’s Gerontius. Much loved by choral groups during his lifetime, Hiawatha was revived after Coleridge-Taylor’s death as a ‘spectacular’ at the Royal Albert Hall with an indoor waterfall, a snow-storm and a 10,000 square foot backcloth for a sold-out fortnight every year from 1924 until 1939.

 

But don’t expect forward-looking Modernism from Coleridge-Taylor; this is feel-good music with great tunes and there is no real trace of the 20th century in his work. Howard Goodall described Hiawatha as a cross between Puccini and Arthur Sullivan. Catch an unknown extract of Coleridge-Taylor on the radio and you’re likely to think of Dvoƙák, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Elgar… He readily soaked up musical influences and created a substantial body of songs, orchestral and chamber music that was immediately appealing, charming and often wistful, with real imagistic quality. In his early twenties, his ‘Black Consciousness’ (as we would call it today) began to rise and he became concerned to reflect his African heritage (his absent father was from Sierra Leone). Yet his African Romances, Suites and Variations are picture-postcards. Born in Holborn and raised in Croydon, he never saw his ancestral homeland.

 

A shy, kind and gentle man, Coleridge-Taylor likely died from exhaustion brought on by overwork. He was – to all extents – a jobbing composer. He taught, examined, adjudicated, conducted and composed popular songs to order, all before the age of 30. Despite his enormous success in many fields, he was poor. Hiawatha's Wedding Feast sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but Coleridge-Taylor had sold the music outright for the sum of just 15 guineas (c. £15). The Performing Right Society (PRS) was founded in 1914, partly as a result of Coleridge-Taylor’s dire financial situation.

 

In 2013, Elizabeth Llewellyn started to research the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The result is ‘Heart & Hereafter’ - a beautifully curated debut album of selected songs, recorded and produced during lockdown.  Showcasing the delicacy, intimacy and imagination of Coleridge-Taylor, the album was the Sunday Times ‘Album of the Week’ and has received glowing reviews.


Kate Romano is CEO of Stapleford Granary, a beautiful arts and music centre which is also the home of ACE Cultural Tours. Discover the range of Autumn events at the Granary by visiting their website at https://www.staplefordgranary.org.uk/ 

 

 

Samuel Coleridge Taylor c. 1905, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Score for Scenes from The Song of Hiawatha, Public Domain via Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

 
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