Black History Month UK 2023 'Before Windrush' - exploring the lives and stories of Black Britons who were living in the UK before the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was a Black British composer, whose father was from Sierra Leone. He rose to acclaim during the 20th century, and his most famous work was Hiawatha's Wedding Feast.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born on 15 August 1875 in Holborn, London. His father was from Sierra Leone who came to Britain to study medicine at King's College London. His father returned to Sierra Leone and he was raised in Croydon, South London, by his mother Alice. Starting at the age of five, Coleridge-Taylor played the violin and sang in his local church choir in Croydon. His talents were noticed and he was sponsored to study at the Royal College of Music in 1890, studying composition under Charles Villiers Stanford. Coleridge-Taylor is considered a pioneer in classical music and an iconic figure in Black British history. His notable works include ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’ (1898), ‘The Death of Minnehaha’ (1899), and ‘Hiawatha’s Departure’ (1900). They received popular acclaim rivalled that of Handel's Messiah’ and Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’. The Hiawatha trilogy was popular with British choirs and orchestras. From 1903 until his death in 1912, he was a professor of composition at the Trinity College of Music and Guildhall School of Music in London. He also judged numerous competitions around Britain, and was the conductor of the Handel Society, the Rochester Choral Society, and many provincial orchestras. The early 20th century saw the formal emergence of Pan-Africanism and Coleridge-Taylor’s music and career embody these influences. Coleridge-Taylor was the youngest delegate to participate in the First Pan-African Conference in 1900, when he was 25. He spent time abroad in both Africa and America, where he developed diasporic connections with leading thinkers and activists fighting for racial equality. In 1904, Coleridge-Taylor visited Booker T. Washington in America, who lead civil rights campaigns for Black empowerment through education and economic advancement. His relationships with Black community across the diaspora encouraged shared experiences and an engagement with Pan-African principles and theories. The Pan-African movement advocated for Black communities to recognise their African heritage and cultural roots. Coleridge-Taylor’s works were also inspired by African American author and civil rights activist W.E. B. DuBois. W. E. B. DuBois’ Pan-Africanist ideologies strongly influenced the liberation and civil rights activism of the 20th century. His prolific essay ‘The Soul of Black Folks’ inspired Black diasporic communities internationally. Coleridge-Taylor also worked closely with another African American, the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar setting some of his poems to music. The cantata, ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ was symbolically adopted by the American civil-rights movement during the early 20th century. Despite Coleridge-Taylor’s popularity amongst British aristocrats he still faced racist abuse in his everyday life and critics often downplayed his achievements as “domesticated” and appeasing his mixed-heritage. Nevertheless, Coleridge-Taylor’s success is undeniable as his works were presented in concerts, orchestras, choirs and theatres. He became one of a new generation of musicians who brought innovation to classic composition. Coleridge-Taylor often proclaimed his own African heritage through his music and sought to draw on African melodies, and saw it is a form of his own expression and exploration. Most notable pieces include ‘Touissant L’Overture’ and ‘Twenty Four Negro Melodies’. In this way, Coleridge-Taylor’s work has been described as demonstrating Pan-African sentiments and the early connection of the Black Atlantic. This composition is a tribute to the Ethiopian victory over Italian forces in the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Italy attempted to invade Ethiopia during the scramble for Africa, but were defeated by the Ethiopian military. The battle of Adwa has since been celebrated as an important turning point in African history and has come to symbolise the possibility of European colonial defeat.
Coleridge-Taylor’s work has been used in academic research to exemplify the power of musicology to influence social power, economic dominance and institutional spaces. As academic George Revill notes, ‘music has long served church, state, and aristocracy, accompanying ritual and ceremony, playing a fundamental role maintaining and justifying the power of elites. In the twentieth century, for example, art music has served the causes of imperialism, nationalism, and totalitarianism.’ (Edward Said, 1992). Coleridge-Taylor died in 1912, his death was widely reported across the Black Atlantic with news reports in Sierra Leone Weekly News and The Norwood Review and Crystal Palace Reporter in London. He was considered a beacon of hope and an iconic figure of Black British history for his achievements and success in classical music.