Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London on 15 August 1875. His father, whom he never knew, was a doctor and a native of Sierra Leone; his mother was an Englishwoman. He entered the Royal College of Music in 1890 as a violinist, but showing great potential in composition, began lessons with Stanford (who was greatly protective of him) in 1892.
His career at the RCM was prodigious and productive. He wrote a number of substantial chamber works including the Nonet (1894) and Clarinet Quintet (1895), the latter of which showed his indebtedness to, and admiration for, the music of Dvo?ák, though it is clear he had also learnt much from Stanford about Brahmsian organic processes. At much the same time he was developing a love for the harmonic and melodic inventiveness of Grieg and Puccini.
After leaving the RCM in 1898 he rapidly came to national prominence with his orchestral Ballade in A minor, commissioned by the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival on Elgar’s recommendation, and his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898), the first of a trilogy which soon included The Death of Minnehaha (1899) and Hiawatha’s Departure (1900). Hiawatha was widely performed and became an iconic work for the all-black Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society of Washington, DC, who invited the composer to America to conduct them in 1904, 1906 and 1910. Other choral works, however, were less successful, and his largest, The Atonement (1903), was an abject failure. More cogent musical thought can be found in the choral rhapsody Kubla Khan (1905) and his setting of Alfred Noyes’s oriental poem A Tale of Old Japan (1911).
An interest in theatre led to the composition of incidental scores for four plays by Stephen Phillips – Herod (1900), Ulysses (1902), Nero (1906) and Faust (1908) – and for Othello (1911), as well as the attractive ballet The Forest of Wild Thyme (1910). But his most substantial work of all was his unperformed Nordic opera, Thelma (1907–9), which contains some of his finest and most passionate music.
His large-scale instrumental works, the Symphonic Variations on an African Air (1906) and the Violin Concerto (1911), are among his most polished essays, as are the lighter The Bamboula (1910) and Petite suite de concert (1912). Interest in his Negro heritage is demonstrated by works such as the African Suite (1899), Toussaint l’Ouverture (1901) and 24 Negro Melodies (1905), while, as a conductor, he earned the nickname ‘the black Mahler’ from New York’s orchestral players.
He was greatly mourned at his premature death on 1 September 1912, from pneumonia brought on, it was believed, by excessive strain and work, and lack of money. Parry wrote a moving obituary for the Musical Times; attempts were made to help his impecunious widow and two children, Hiawatha and Avril; and Stanford berated Novello for not giving his former pupil a proper royalty agreement on Hiawatha, one which would have rendered Coleridge-Taylor a wealthy man.
Profile © Jeremy Dibble, 2005