Recalling Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

By Tortolano, William | Pastoral Music, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Recalling Samuel Coleridge-Taylor


Tortolano, William, Pastoral Music


Anniversary years for composers come and go, but the centenary of the death of one relatively unknown person deserves recognition. The very gifted Anglo-African composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is an important figure in the rich renaissance of African-American culture. Taylor's father was a medical doctor from Sierra Leone, who studied and practiced medicine for a short time in London, returning to Africa before he knew he had a son in London.1 There is some controversy about the identity of his mother, but the young man loved and respected his mother. In 1899, he married his Royal College of Music fellow student Jessie (née Walmisley).

A prolific composer of eighty-two opuses, Coleridge-Taylor enjoyed enormous popularity during his short life of thirty-seven years. Deeply aware of what he called his "Negro background," Taylor became increasingly involved with the cultural growth of African Americans, especially after his first visit to the United States in 1904. A friend and inspiration to W. E. B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Harry Burleigh, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and The Fisk Jubilee Singers as well as many other advocates of African American culture, Taylor's great fame became their pride.

Although Coleridge-Taylor was the recipient of numerous commissions during his lifetime and was recognized with Sir Edward Elgar as pre-eminent English composers, little of his music is performed today. A pupil of the Irish composer Sir Charles Stanford at the Royal College of Music in London, the African English composer enjoyed instant recognition at age twenty-three with his setting of Longfellow's Hiawatha. Taylor would continue his love affair with the American poetic imprints of Longfellow and Walt Whitman and the vernacular language of Paul Laurence Dunbar.

A First Visit

In 1904, Taylor made his first visit to America. He became increasingly caught up in the love and enthusiasm of his heritage. In that year he read the Souls of Black Folk by Dr. DuBois. It made a profound impact on his life, leading him to use Negro folk music from Africa and the United States. Because of his success with Hiawatha and other compositions, Taylor was admired by the Black community in the United States as a leader and indeed as the prototype for the renaissance of Black Culture.2

This admiration intensified his love and enthusiasm for his heritage. Taylor also enjoyed concert performances with Dunbar, who introduced him to a vernacular language with which he was not yet familiar. All this generated a provocative ethnic repertoire. He held that great music is to be found in the folk songs of a people.

During this first visit to America (he made three triumphant tours), Coleridge-Taylor received an invitation from the Oliver Ditson Company of Boston to arrange an album of Negro songs for piano, which he published the following year as Twenty-Four Negro Melodies.3 The melodies were taken from the most authoritative sources. He found valuable material in the Jubilee Songs collected by Theodore F. Seward in the 1870s and made famous by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. The second source of the music was Les Chants et les contes des Ba-Ronga by Henri Junod, providing material from the BaRonga district in South Africa.

All of the Twenty-Four are challenging, but each manifests a gem of deep emotion, creative compositional techniques, and spiritual consonance, and each today would make an aesthetic/liturgical enrichment to the liturgy. …

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