At the turn of the twentieth century, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor enjoyed immense popularity at the age of 22. Born in 1875 to a Black doctor and an Englishwoman, Coleridge-Taylor grew up in the Croydon home of his maternal grandfather, Benjamin Holmans. The latter taught Samuel the violin at a young age. Recognizing his talent, his family paid for him to study at the Royal College of Music at fifteen. A student of Romanticist composer and conductor Charles Villiers Stanford, Coleridge-Taylor became a profound composer. It was during this time he composed in quick succession several works – including his Piano Quintet (ca.1893), Nonet (for strings, winds, and piano, ca.1893), Piano Trio (1893), Fantasiestücke for String Quartet (1895), Clarinet Quintet (1895), and String Quartet (1896, but lost). Upon completion, Coleridge-Taylor became a conductor at the Croydon Conservatoire and began teaching at the Crystal Palace of Music.
Recommended by Edward Elgar to perform at the Three Choirs Festival of 1898, Coleridge-Taylor debuted his Ballade in A Minor, Op. 33 with great success. He followed up with Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. Inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, Coleridge-Taylor’s work premiered on November 8th, 1898, at London’s Royal College of Music. Conducting by his former teacher, Villiers Stanford, Wedding Feast (No. 1) became immediately successful. He followed up with two other compositions to form The Song of Hiawatha trilogy, Op. 30, by far his most well-known work.
Amid compositions, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor married Jessie Walmisley. A classmate at the College of Music, Jessie’s parents objected to the marriage on account of Samuel’s mixed-race heritage. Her parents later gave their blessing, and the two were married in 1899. The couple would have two children: Hiawatha, born in 1900, and Gwendolyn, born in 1903.
Interested in his father’s racial heritage, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor took part in the Pan-African Conference of 1900. Coleridge-Taylor began drawing influence from music of the Black experience and integrated it into his works, citing Johannes Brahms and Antonin Dvořák, both drawing from Hungarian and Bohemian folk music. He also set to music a series of poems written by African-American composer Paul Laurence Dunbar. His compositions became popularly enjoyed, and he was welcomed at the White House by Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.
Despite his success, Coleridge-Taylor didn’t earn wealth from his compositions. In many cases, he sold the rights to works to stay afloat. Despite acclaim for Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, Coleridge-Taylor had already sold the music outright for a meager sum. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor died on September 1st, 1912, aged 37, of pneumonia. Shortly after his death, a public effort was made to help support his family. At Royal Albert Hall, a memorial concert garnered £300 (approx. $8,000 today). King George V granted an annual pension of £100 to his widow. Seeing that he received no royalties for his popular Song of Hiawatha, British musicians joined together to create the Performing Rights Society.
Decades after his death, researcher Catherine Carr discovered his missing opera, Thelma, performed at Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre in 2012 – a century after Coleridge-Taylor’s death. As more works will undoubtedly be found, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor nevertheless remains a titan among the great composers of classical music.
Watch as your RPO performs Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet, a sheer demonstration of his gift for composing chamber music! Enjoy Coleridge-Taylor + Mendelssohn, now through April 18th, anytime, anywhere! Click here to stream, or call our Patron Services Center at (585) 454-2100 to place your order.