Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: The 19th Century Black composer who tried to change the face of classical music forever
October is Black History Month.
It is a time to reflect upon the struggle and discrimination Black people face, the history that is too often forgotten, and to give the lives and histories of black people the recognition and attention they have been denied in years gone by.
It is not just a time to ponder injustice, both past and present, but also to celebrate success and Black excellence, often achieved in spite of racial discrimination.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor may not be as much of a household as other pioneering Black musicians like Louis Armstrong, Prince or Nina Simone – but his legacy is both important, and very much intertwined with the history of Kent.
Born north of the river Thames in Holborn in 1875, Samuel was raised by his mother Alice Hare Martin, who herself was born in Dover.
He never knew his father – who moved back to Sierra Leone before Samuel was born, not knowing that Samuel’s mother was pregnant.
Confusingly – Samuel was named after the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge – who also happened to spend quite a bit of time in Kent.
Despite his mother’s Kentish origins, Samuel was raised just across the Surrey border in Croydon, and was part of a family that wasn’t short on musical talent.
His grandfather began teaching Samuel the violin at a young age, at which point his talent became abundantly clear.
He was a singer as a child too, receiving musical tutoring from several local choirmasters and musicians in Croydon, most notable of whom was Colonel Herbert Walters, who would be key to Samuel’s success.
Walters was able to get Samuel an interview at the prestigious Royal College of Music (RCM) – which earned him a scholarship – and landed a young, Black, 15 year old musician a place at one of the most influential institutions in the entire country.
Samuel’s early career
This wasn’t a story unmarked by Samuel’s race, though.
A mixed-race person, the colour of Samuel’s skin still drew derision, with his school colleagues nicknaming him ‘coal-ey’.
But according to the British Library’s account of his life, Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s rise to prominence wasn’t a simple case of a Black person struggling to succeed against the odds – but also testament to his immense talent.
He was subject to racial slurs and discrimination, but his talent also brought admiration and good friendship – to the extent that when one friend overheard another student using a racial insult towards Coleridge-Taylor, he turned and shouted that Samuel had, “more music in his little finger” than the other student “had in his whole body.”
He wasn’t in shabby company either – performing the violin alongside some unbelievably famous fellow students at the Royal College of Music – such as Gustav Holst, who went on to write the melody of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ – and Ralph Vaughn Williams.
Even Edward Elgar recognised how great Samuel truly was – turning down an offer to write a commissioned piece and recommending Samuel in his place, saying he was, “far away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men.”
Beyond being a talented musician, though, Samuel’s talent was writing and composing music, something that his African heritage had a great deal of influence upon.
Success, recognition and legacy
Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was perhaps his greatest work – infusing elements of African music into classical music.
But, like many other musicians of the time, he sold the rights composition for immediate income, and never really benefitted from the piece’s success.
Samuel’s time in Kent lasted 5 years – as the conductor of the Rochester Choral Society between 1902 and 1907, whilst teaching at some of England’s most prestigious music schools.
In this period, he also gained a huge amount of prestige in the USA – even being entertained by President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in 1904.
It was on this trip that a performance of one of his pieces drew a crowd of 2700 people – which was not small by any means – and more remarkably, two thirds of those in the audience were Black.
Classical music was, and arguably has continued to be a racially segregated art form, often explicitly and deliberately excluding non-white people – but Samuel made music to reflect his own heritage, and clearly it resonated.
Despite his talent, Coleridge Taylor was never insulated from the grim realities being a Black person in England brought with it.
His wife, Jessie Walmisley, was abused, whilst his daughter spoke about how he was racially abused in the street by local youths, saying: ““When he saw them approaching along the street he held my hand more tightly, gripping it until it almost hurt.”
Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, his 1898 breakout success, would outlive Samuel – but both faded far too soon, and were largely forgotten by the end of the second World War.
His life was cut cruelly short by pneumonia long before then, though, as in 1912 he passed away in Croydon,
He was only 37.
A pioneer triumphing against the odds, whose career was ended by a disease we now recognise as perfectly treatable, there is a bitter sadness to Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s story that his forgotten legacy echoes.
He may not be one of the most well renowned classical composers in history – but he deserves more credit than he gets in the modern age.
Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s story of succeeding against the odds – in what today is seen as an elitist and exclusionary genre of music – is remarkable, undeniably important, and a prime example of the Black culture and history that many of us too often forget.