Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born on 15 August 1875 in Holborn, son of a Sierra Leonean doctor and an English mother. It is thought that his father had already returned to Sierra Leone before Samuel’s mother, Alice, knew that she was pregnant (the couple were not married) and so he never knew he had a son in London.
Alice named her son for the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the pair moved to Croydon where Samuel grew up and lived his life. Details of his early life are unclear but certainly he received violin lessons and showed such promise that he entered the Royal College of Music on a scholarship, later moving his interest to composing. It has been reported that Coleridge-Taylor’s career was dogged by racism, but it is known that he had great support at the RCM and won the Lesley Alexander composition prize two years running. Doubtless his success resulted in jealousy, and what easier attack on an enemy than a racist insult.
Certainly racism did affect Coleridge-Taylor in many ways. He married Jessie Walmisley, a fellow RCM student, in 1899 and they had two children, Hiawatha and Gwendolen (who later changed her name to Avril), who followed them into musical careers. Avril later recounted her father’s response to the racist comments locals would make to them: ‘When he saw them approaching along the street he held my hand more tightly, gripping it until it almost hurt.’
Coleridge-Taylor’s most famous work is Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, composed in 1898 from the Longfellow poem. The score was published ahead of the premiere by Novello & Co. and the performance was well-attended, the London papers calling it a masterpiece. He may have been a genius composer, but Coleridge-Taylor did not have a head for business. He sold the rights to his great work for a mere 15 guineas, though thousands of copies of the score were later sold. He wrote two related pieces which helped found his reputation but were not as popular.
With little information about his own father’s background, Coleridge-Taylor sought to learn about his heritage. His learning was mainly influenced by the American diaspora and he travelled to the USA three times to tour. He had many supporters there as black American musicians were struggling to have their own music held in such high regard as Coleridge-Taylor’s was in the UK. For him, he enjoyed feeling comfortable around people who treated him as themselves instead of always filling the role of the talented outsider.
He toured, he taught, he composed and he conducted, working incredibly hard to earn the money to keep his family. On the 28 August 1912 Samuel Coleridge-Taylor collapsed while he waited for a train at West Croydon station. He was suffering from pneumonia and died on the 1st September at the age of 37. His untimely death has been attributed to overwork as he struggled to support his family. After a funeral which became a public event, a memorial concert was held which raised £1440 to help his family. Perhaps one of Coleridge-Taylor’s greatest legacies is that, due to the scandal that his family did not receive any royalties from the still vastly popular Hiawatha’s Wedding, his circumstances are said to have added weight to the argument surrounding artist copyright. In 1914 the Performing Rights Society was formed and Jessie Coleridge-Taylor received a Civil List pension of £100 from King George V.