If you’re like me, when you heard the name Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, you thought, “Isn’t that the guy who wrote Rime of the Ancient Mariner? The English poet?” Nope, that’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge. However, Coleridge-Taylor’s mother did name him after the famous poet (he was born only 41 years after the poet died).
No, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer of numerous works including his most celebrated cantata, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, a piano quintet, a symphony, a once missing opera named Thelma, and his festive Christmas Overture which we performed in December 2017.
Here are some other interesting facts about this British composer:
1. He earned the nickname the “African Mahler”. Coleridge-Taylor’s mother was English and his father was Dr. Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, a Creole from Sierra Leone. His father descended from African-American slaves who were freed by the British and evacuated from the colonies at the end of the Revolutionary War.
2. He met President Theodore Roosevelt. On his first tour of the US, the composer was received by President Roosevelt at the White House which was a rare event for anyone of African descent.
3. He died young. Coleridge-Taylor was only 37 when he died from pneumonia. King George V granted his widow an annual pension which was considered evidence that he held the composer in high regard.
4. He wrote a work inspired by his near-namesake. Coleridge-Taylor wrote a piece called The Legend of Kubla Khan after the poem “Kubla Khan, Or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment”.
5. He almost didn’t attend college. The Royal College of Music hesitated over Coleridge-Taylor’s race, apparently worried that other students might object. Ultimately, he did admit Samuel at age 15 as a violin student. After 2 years, Samuel swapped violin for composition.
6. He was a pioneer in integrating African music in his music. He sought to do what Brahms had done with Hungarian music and Dvorak with Bohemian music by integrating African and traditions of the African diaspora into his compositions. Examples of this include his Four African Dances, Concert Overture, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the Symphonic Variations on an African Air.
7. His Christmas Overture appeared posthumously. In 1925, Sydney Baynes arranged the work which features “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “Good King Wenceslaus”, and “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” and is thought to have been derived from Coleridge-Taylor’s The Forest of Wild Thyme, a fairy drama for children.
8. Both of his children also had distinguished careers as conductors and composers. His son, Hiawatha, adapted his father’s works. His daughter, Gwendolyn, became a conductor and composer using the professional name Avril Coleridge-Taylor.