Updated: Aug 30, 2022
As part of Rosslyn Hill's 'Celebrating Black Lives' series, we commemorate Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a talented and accomplished Black composer in the early 20th century.
Born in Holborn in 1875 to a Black father from Sierra Leone and a white mother from England, Samuel was named after the renowned poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. After learning violin, he joined the Royal College of Music at the young age of 15.
Coleridge-Taylor would become an immensely popular composer in Edwardian Britain, with his cantata The Song of Hiawatha being met with widespread acclaim. His Hiawatha Trilogy was performed at the Royal Albert Hall in 1900.
However, Coleridge-Taylor's inspirations and influence would spread further afield. The composer was inspired by American spirituals and African folk music, despite the racist elitism of the classical music establishment of his day.
His cantata's themes of dispersal, struggle and Christian salvation struck a chord with the African-American community and the US civil rights movement in the early years of the 20th century.
As Andrew Hilyer wrote to Coleridge-Taylor, "In composing Hiawatha you have done the coloured people of the USA a service which, I am sure, you never dreamed of when composing it. It acts as a source of inspiration for us, not only musically but in other lines of endeavour."
Such was his popularity, Coleridge-Taylor went on to go on three tours of the US with his music and was even received by Theodore Roosevelt in the Whitehouse in 1904.
Coleridge-Taylor eventually died in 1912 in Croydon at the age of 37 due to pneumonia caused by overwork. In 1975, he became the first Black person to receive a blue plaque.
Each month we mark the significant life of a person of colour as a positive statement and a contribution to redressing historical imbalances in our society. More profiles.
Asprou, Helena. "Who was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the English composer referred to as ‘Black Mahler’?" Classic FM, 22 July 2020 https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/who-was-samuel-coleridge-taylor-what-famous-for/.
"COLERIDGE-TAYLOR, SAMUEL (1875-1912)." English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/samuel-coleridge-taylor/.
Revill, George. “Hiawatha and Pan-Africanism: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), a Black Composer in Suburban London.” Ecumene, vol. 2, no. 3, 1995, pp. 247–66. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44251770.
Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, published by Breitkopf & Hartel, vintage bromide print, circa 1905, 5 3/8 in. x 3 3/8 in. (136 mm x 87 mm) overall. Given by Terence Pepper, Photographs Collection. NPG x135708.