Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was the son of a doctor from Sierra Leone and an English woman, born in Croydon, England on 15 August 1875. At the age of 15, he was accepted into a violin class at the Royal College of Music in London and studied composition before being awarded a composition scholarship in March 1893. As a composer he progressed far more quickly than his fellow students. At a young age, Coleridge-Taylor became familiar with the works of the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had a strong influence on Coleridge-Taylor, especially on his compositions Seven African romances op. 17 (1897), A corn song (1897), African suite op. 35 (1897) and the opera Dream lovers op. 25 (1898). He was also familiar with the writings of Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois, whose collection of essays, The souls of Black folk, he called “the finest book I have ever read by a colored man, and one of the best by any author, White or Black”.
At the age of 23, Coleridge-Taylor was commissioned to write his Ballade in A minor for Britain’s Three Choirs Festival; although he is best known for Hiawatha’s wedding feast, based on poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. The overture Coleridge-Taylor wrote for the piece was inspired by the African American spiritual Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. In 1904, he made the first of three trips to the United States where he toured during the post-Reconstruction era and met notable African American figures such as the poet James Weldon Johnson and the statesman Booker T. Washington. During this period, he also conducted performances of his works at the Washington Festival and Litchfield Festival on the East Coast. Later, Coleridge-Taylor became a professor of composition at Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music. In addition to cantatas, chamber music, and orchestral works, he also wrote popular songs and incidental music. Coleridge-Taylor passed away at the age of 37 from pneumonia.
Read the full entry on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in MGG Online.
Listen to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha overture below.
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