Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (15 August 1875 – 1 September 1912) was an English composer who achieved such success that he was once called the "African Mahler".
Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn, London, to a Sierra Leonean Creole father, Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, and an English mother, Alice Hare Martin. They were not married. He was born Samuel Coleridge Taylor. His surname was Taylor, and his middle name of Coleridge was after the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was known by his middle name to his family: Coleridge Taylor. He later affected the name Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, allegedly following a printer’s typographical error.
The father returned to Africa by February 1875. He was appointed coroner for the British Empire in the Gambia in the late 1890s but was unaware of his son's existence.
Coleridge-Taylor was brought up in Croydon by Martin and her father Benjamin Holmans, whose other son was a professional musician. He studied the violin at the Royal College of Music then composition under Charles Villiers Stanford (who would conduct the first performance of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast in 1898), and he also taught and conducted the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire. In 1899 he married Jessie Walmisley, despite her parents' objection to his mixed race parentage. She was a fellow student of his at the RCM who left the college in 1893. They had a son, Hiawatha (1900-1980) and a daughter, Avril, born Gwendolyn (1903-1998).
By 1896, Coleridge-Taylor had earned a reputation as a composer, later helped by Edward Elgar who recommended him to the Three Choirs Festival which premiered his Ballade in A minor. His early work was also guided by the influential music editor and critic August Jaeger of music publisher Novello, who told Elgar that Coleridge (as his family called him) was "a genius." His successes brought him a tour of the United States in 1904, which in turn increased his interest in his racial heritage. He sought to do for African music what Johannes Brahms did for Hungarian music and Antonín Dvořák for Bohemian music. He had met the American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in London and set some of his poems to music, and was also encouraged by Dunbar and other black people to consider his ancestry and the music of the African continent.
Coleridge-Taylor was sometimes seen as shy, but effective in communicating when conducting. He was very kind. Composers were not handsomely paid for their efforts and often sold the rights to works outright, thereby missing out on royalties (a scheme which became widespread only in 1911) which went to publishers who always risked their investments. He was much sought after for adjudicating at festivals.
Coleridge-Taylor was 37 when he died of pneumonia. His widow gave the impression that she was almost penniless but King George V granted her a pension of £100, evidence of the high regard in which the composer was held. A memorial concert was held later in 1912 at the Royal Albert Hall and garnered £300. His estate was thus worth approximately the price of three houses, and there were royalties from compositions (but not from Hiawatha which he had sold outright for 15 guineas).
Coleridge-Taylor's work was later championed by Malcolm Sargent who between 1928 and 1939 conducted ten seasons of a costumed ballet version of The Song of Hiawatha at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Choral Society (600 to 800 singers) and 200 dancers.
A 1912 obituary in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review
Coleridge-Taylor's greatest success was undoubtedly his cantata Hiawatha's Wedding-feast, which was widely performed by choral groups in England during Coleridge-Taylor's lifetime and in the decades after his death, its popularity rivalled only by the choral standards Handel's Messiah and Mendelssohn's Elijah. The composer soon followed Hiawatha's Wedding-feast with two other cantatas about Hiawatha, The Death of Minnehaha and Hiawatha's Departure; all three were published together, along with an Overture, as The Song of Hiawatha, Op. 30. The tremendously popular Hiawatha seasons at the Royal Albert Hall, which continued till 1939, were conducted by Sargent and involved hundreds of choristers, and scenery covering the organ loft. Hiawatha's Wedding-feast is still occasionally revived.
Coleridge-Taylor also composed chamber music, anthems, and the African Dances for violin, among other works. The Petite Suite de Concert is still regularly played. He set one poem by his near-namesake Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Legend of Kubla Khan.
Coleridge-Taylor was greatly admired by African-Americans; in 1901, a 200-voice African-American chorus was founded in Washington, D.C., named the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society. He visited the USA three times receiving great acclaim and earned the title "the African Mahler" from the white orchestral musicians in New York in 1910.
Coleridge-Taylor composed a violin concerto for the American violinist Maud Powell, the American performance of which was subject to rewriting because the parts were lost en route - not, as legend has it, on the RMS Titanic but on another ship. The concerto has been recorded by Philippe Graffin and the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Anthony Marwood and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins (on Hyperion Records) and Lorraine McAslan and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite (on Lyrita). It was also performed at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre in the autumn of 1998 by John McLaughlin Williams and William Thomas as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the composition of Hiawatha's Wedding-Feast.
For more background and information about current events concerning Samuel Coleridge Taylor, see .
In 1999, freelance music editor Patrick Meadows discovered that three important chamber works by Coleridge-Taylor had apparently never been printed and made widely available to musicians. A handwritten performing parts edition of the Piano Quintet, from the original in the Royal College of Music (RCM) Library, had been prepared earlier by violinist Martin Anthony Burrage of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the first modern performance of the Piano Quintet  being given by Burrage's chamber music group, Ensemble Liverpool / Live-A-Music on 7th November 2001 in Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, at a lunchtime recital which also included the Fantasiestücke. Live recordings of this performance are lodged with the RCM and the British Library. The artists involved were Andrew Berridge (violin), Martin Anthony (Tony) Burrage (violin), Joanna Lacey (viola), Michael Parrott (cello) and John Peace (piano).
After receiving copies from the RCM in London, Patrick Meadows made printed playing editions of the Nonet, Piano Quintet, and Piano Trio. The works were then performed in Meadows's regular chamber music festival on the island of Majorca, and were well-received by the public as well as the performers. The first modern performances of some of these works were done in the early 1990s by the Boston, Massachusetts-based Coleridge Ensemble, led by William Thomas of Phillips Academy, Andover. This group subsequently made world premiere recordings of the Nonet, Fantasiestücke for string quartet and Six Negro Folksongs for piano trio which were released in 1998 by Afka Records. Thomas, a champion of lost works by black composers, also revived Coleridge's Hiawatha's Wedding feast in a performance commemorating the composition's 100th anniversary with the Cambridge Community Chorus at Harvard's Sanders Theatre in the spring of 1998.
The Nash Ensemble's recording of the Piano Quintet was released in 2007.
In 2006, Meadows finished engraving the first edition of Coleridge-Taylor's Symphony in A minor. He has also finished transcribing from the RCM manuscript the Haytian Dances, a work virtually identical to the Noveletten, but with a fifth movement inserted by Coleridge-Taylor, based on the Scherzo of the symphony. This work is for string orchestra, tambourine, and triangle.
The missing opera
Some years ago, whilst researching for a PhD on the life and music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Catherine Carr unearthed the manuscripts of his missing opera, Thelma. She assembled a libretto and catalogued the opera in her thesis, presenting a first critical examination of the work through a thorough investigation of the discovered manuscripts. This is the first academic study of Coleridge-Taylor's only operatic work (including copious typset examples). The work subsequently appeared as such on the catalogue of the British Library.
Thelma is a saga of deceit, magic, retribution and the triumph of love over wickedness. The composer has followed Richard Wagner’s manner in eschewing the established ‘numbers’ opera format, preferring to blend recitative, aria and ensemble into a seamless whole. It is possible that he had read Marie Corelli’s 1887 "Nordic" novel Thelma (it appears that the name ‘Thelma’ may have been created by Corelli for her heroine). Coleridge-Taylor composed Thelma between 1907 and 1909; it is alternatively entitled The Amulet. As to the heroine of the title, the composed changed her name to ‘Freda’ in both full and vocal scores (although in the full score he occasionally forgets himself and writes ‘Thelma’ instead of ‘Freda’).
The full score and a vocal score (both manuscripts in the composer’s hand) are housed in the British Library – the full score is unbound but complete (save that the vocal parts do not have the words after the first few folios) but the vocal score is bound (in three volumes) and complete with words. Patrick Meadows and Lionel Harrison have prepared a type-set full score, vocal score and libretto (the librettist is uncredited and may be Coleridge-Taylor himself) with the keen hope of securing a staging on or before the centenary of the composer’s death in 1912. Perhaps Coleridge-Taylor changed the name of his heroine (and might have changed the name of the opera, had it been produced) to avoid creating the assumption that his work was a treatment of Corelli’s then very popular novel. Since that precaution is scarcely necessary today, they have decided to revert to the original Thelma.
There are some very minor discrepancies between the full score and the vocal score (the occasional passage occurring in different keys in the two, for example) but nothing which would inhibit the production of a complete, staged performance.
Thelma will be performed in 2012 by Pegasus Opera  for the first time since it was rediscovered.
List of compositions
With opus number
- Suite for Violin and Piano, Op.3
- 5 Fantasiestücke, Op.5
- Legende, Op.14
- Three Hiawatha Sketches, Op.16
- 4 Characteristic Waltzes, Op.22
- Violin Sonata, Op.28
- The Song of Hiawatha, Op.30
- 3 Humoresques, Op.31
- 6 Songs, Op.37
- The Blind Girl of Castél-Cuillé, Op.43
- Concert Overture, 'Toussaint L'Ouverture', Op.46
- Meg Blane, Op.48
- The Atonement, Op.53
- Moorish Dance, Op.55
- 3 Cameos for Piano, Op.56
- 6 Sorrow Songs, Op.57
- 4 African Dances, Op. 58
- 24 Negro Melodies, Op.59
- Symphonic Variations on an African Air Op. 63
- 4 Scenes de Ballet, Op.64
- Forest Scenes, Op.66
- Bon-Bon Suite, Op.68
- Scenes from an Imaginary Ballet, Op.74
- Rhapsodic Dance, 'The Bamboula', Op. 75
- A Tale of Old Japan, Op.76
- Petite Suite de Concert, Op. 77
- Violin Concerto, Op.80
Without opus number
- The Lee Shore
- Variations for Cello and Piano
- Reid, Charles (1968). Malcolm Sargent: a biography. London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd. ISBN 0241913160.
- Self, Geoffrey (1995). The Hiawatha Man: the Life & Work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press. ISBN 0859679837.