The son of an English woman and Sierra Leonean Creole physician, the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in 1875 and only lived to the age of thirty-seven. Yet his contribution to music was profound and continues to resonate with many musicians today as well as Creoles, Africans, and African Americans who may view his accomplishments as particularly noteworthy given the obstacles he faced and the hurdles he overcame to make a name for himself. As a man of Creole heritage who led a distinguished career as a composer, his legacy is inspirational for many reasons and his story is important to remember.
Growing up without a father present in the 1870s was likely as challenging as in the 1970s. Missing a parent’s love, devotion, care can never be an easy predicament no matter what century is in question. Coleridge-Taylor was born after his father returned to Africa. In fact, historians aren’t certain his father was aware he had a son. Coleridge-Taylor was given his father’s surname at birth, Taylor and Coleridge was his given middle name (after the poet). Eventually he adopted the hyphen to link the two names.
Alice Hare Martin was seventeen when she met Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor who was studying in England having come from Freetown in Sierra Leone. Biographers have pieced together a history of Martin and found that she herself was born illegitimately. She was young when she began seeing Taylor and their relationship was extraordinary for the times in that part of the world. In fact, he is believed to have left England because of prejudice and an inability to procure productive work as a physician. Hence, he returned to Africa and did not return to England.
As a child of color, Coleridge-Taylor would have stood out from other children where he grew up in Croydon, but he was discovered to be a prodigy with the violin. Alice remarried and had other children and Coleridge-Taylor grew up within her family and was recognized early on by other family members for his talents. In spite of his talent, he would play a child’s violin his grandfather gave him until he attended the Royal College of Music. Though Coleridge-Taylor was known at school for his talent and won various competitions, he did suffer for his looks which were so different from other students. In fact, there is a report that suggests his hair was set on fire by other students. Even so, he continued to hone his talent which would take him far.
The Development of a Composer
While there is little doubt that Coleridge-Taylor experienced racism and many challenges associated with it, he did have a few important people in his corner supporting him and urging him forward. His mother was inspirational for him and he often played her new melodies. His music teacher and later some musical patrons would prove especially helpful to him. In fact, it was a patron who may have known Coleridge-Taylor’s father who persuaded the Royal College of Music to accept the boy and take him on as a student. By age fifteen, Coleridge-Taylor became well-known and locally famous. He also added piano playing to his musical repertoire and composition appeared to be his strong suit.
Rising above It All
For Coleridge-Taylor, talent and dedication to music along with a couple opportunities led to his rise at a time when it was particularly hard from someone of color to rise beyond such challenging circumstances. His promise was realized and he became a professor of music at the Crystal Palace School of Music. He also conducted Croydon’s symphony. His stardom came, however, with his trilogy of cantatas known as Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. He had composed other pieces of note, as well, but it was Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast that brought him to America to tour several times. In fact, his celebrity became so well known in England and America that he was even invited to the White House and met with President Theodore Roosevelt.
Coleridge-Taylor died in 1912 at the age of thirty-seven of pneumonia. He left behind a body of work that inspired composers after him; yet, his inspiration is also tied to his struggle to overcome extraordinary difficulties. His parent’s relationship, quite unusual for the era, and lack of a father were early difficulties, but his devotion to music allowed him to grow past the obstacles that threatened to keep him down. One of the most inspiring aspects of his career came later when he was persuaded to begin to examine the music of Africa, the music of his ancestors–the ancestors he did not know but were part of his blood. Poets of the era convinced him to put their poetry to music and to explore his African influences.
Given time, Coleridge-Taylor might have infused more African influences into his compositions. As it was, he was able to pass on his gifts to a daughter who became a composer in her own right–also no simple feat for a woman in those days. Coleridge-Taylor also had a son. He had married an English woman who attended music school with him and while their relationship was early frowned upon because of his ancestry, the couple transcended the racism that seemed to always nip at the heels of the composer. Yet so revered did he become that the king allowed Coleridge-Taylor’s wife a widow’s pension upon his death.
Today he is revered among Creoles as well as African Americans and people of African descent. Yet he is inspirational to all artists who hone their skills and overcome their individual circumstances and challenges whatever they may be. His work stands as a testament to that perseverance, that will to succeed and to see his talent fully realized and respected on the international stage.