Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born on August 15, 1875 in Holborn, England (a suburb of London). His father, Daniel Hughes Taylor, was a native of Sierra Leone, and his mother was English. Daniel Taylor came to England to study medicine. He was a student at Taunton College, Somerset and later at Kings College in London. His work led him to become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and to obtain a license from the Royal College of Physicians.
His father was not a part of Coleridge-Taylor's life, returning to Sierra Leone either before Samuel's birth or while he was a very young boy. William Tortolano in his book Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; Anglo-Black Composer, 1875-1912 (Metuchen, NJ, Scarecrow, 1977) states:
The young doctor became an assistant... The white patients seemed to like the young assistant... Eventually he sought a practice of his own but this became disastrous because of resentment of his color. As an assistant he was received with little reservation, but as an independent doctor he was mistrusted. Dr. Taylor returned to Africa around 1876.
As a child Coleridge-Taylor studied violin and sang in the choir of
St. George's Church, Croydon. At the age of fifteen he was admitted by
Sir George Grove to the Royal College of Music as a violin student.
While at the Royal College his interest in composition grew. With the
support of Colonel Herbert Walters, one of his first benefactors, and
Grove, arrangements were made that Coleridge-Taylor would study
composition with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. While studying with
Stanford, Coleridge-Taylor competed for one of the nine open
scholarships at the college and was awarded the fellowship in
composition (1893). At that time Grove wrote, "Now you are a
scholar...you are now before the world..."
Some of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's greatest works date from these early years. His most famous work is perhaps the trilogy based upon the poems of the Cambridge, Massachusetts native, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hiawatha's Wedding Feast (1898) is the first of these three works and the one that is often seen as Coleridge-Taylor's crowning achievement. During Coleridge-Taylor's lifetime it had a popularity in England equaled only by Handel's Messiah and Mendelssohn's Elijah!
In the United States Coleridge-Taylor's music and work inspired the establishment of the Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society. This was a choral society in Washington, DC composed of some 200 African American singers for the purpose of performing Coleridge-Taylor's works. This society sponsored Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's first visit to the United States where he conducted them in a concert at Constitution Hall.
Coleridge-Taylor's work and his visits to the United States were very important cultural and social connections. His collaboration with Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) in Seven African Romances (1897), A Corn Song (1897) and in an opera, Dream Lovers (1898) is an extraordinary partnership of two nineteenth century artists of African ancestry.
The impact of his work and his person is further witnessed by his association with both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. An introduction to Coleridge-Taylor's Twenty-four Negro Melodies was written by Booker T. Washington. His admiration and respect for Coleridge-Taylor's work is a reflection of the pride and admiration felt by many African-Americans.
The paternity of Mr. Coleridge-Taylor and his love for what is elemental and racial found rich expression in the choral work by which he is best known, and more obviously in his African Romances, Op. 17, a set of seven songs; the African Suite for the piano, Op. 35; and Five Choral Ballads, for baritone solo, quartet, chorus and orchestra, Op. 54 being a setting of five of Longfellow's Poems on Slavery. The transcription of Negro melodies contained in this volume is, however, the most complete expression of Mr. Coleridge-Taylor's native bent and power. Using some of the native songs of Africa and the West Indies with songs that came into being in America during the slavery régime, he has in handling these melodies preserved their distinctive traits and individuality, at the same time giving them an art form fully imbued with their essential spirit.
Also, in the foreword of his `Twenty-four Negro Melodies' Samuel Coleridge-Taylor thanks a number of people who have helped him find these melodies, but he mentions in particular, "...the late world-renowned and deeply lamented Frederick J. Loudin, manager of the famous Jubilee Singers, through whom I first learned to appreciate the beautiful folk-music of my race, and who did so much to make it known the world over."
His love of the work of W.E.B. Du Bois is evidenced by an excerpt from a letter written to Mr. Andrew F. Hilyer, treasurer of the Coleridge-Taylor Society, who had sent him a copy of Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk:
This is only to thank you over and over again for so kindly sending me the book by Mr. Du Bois. It is about the finest book I have ever read by a coloured man and one of the best by any author, white and black.
DuBois wrote of his relationship with Coleridge-Taylor in his book, Darkwater. He uses Coleridge-Taylor's life and career to represent the emblematic black hero. Arnold Rampersad writes in his book, The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. DuBois (Schocken Books, New York, 1976):
Here, the success of Coleridge-Taylor represents the fulfillment of black potential once granted the opportunity to develop in relative freedom. The black psyche, in the absence of racism flowers into unlimited achievement.... The accomplishments of Coleridge-Taylor repudiate notions of innate black or mulatto inferiority: his productive career in British music was an augury of the future of the black man and of race relations in general...
Coleridge-Taylor was received at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt, an extraordinary event for a person of color at that time. However, his visit touched the hearts of many. William Tortolano, in his book Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Anglo-Black Composer, 1875-1912, cites that during Coleridge-Taylor's Washington, DC visit, he was presented with "a baton made from cedar on the estate of the Negro leader Frederick Douglas...by the pupils of the M Street School for Girls."
The great esteem by which Coleridge-Taylor's life and work was held by African Americans is evidenced even today by two American schools bearing his name: in Louisville, Kentucky, The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School (established in 1911 as a school for `colored' children and named for the composer in 1913), and in Baltimore, Maryland, The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School (Public School No. 122) established in 1926 as the first elementary school built for `colored' children in Baltimore.
In the foreword to the 1969 edition of Sayers', Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Musician, His Life and Letters, Blydon Jackson writes:
American Negroes who were born in the earlier years of this century grew up in black communities where the name of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was as well known then as now are such names as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.... Gentle as he was in manner, refined as was his calling, he was still a fierce apostle of human liberty and a crusader for the rights of man. He was a parable for the black consciousness of our present time.