Britain’s Forgotten Mixed Race Composer

A mixed black composer whose work was admired by the likes of US President Roosevelt fought racial prejudice all of his life 

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Bandon Hill is a Cemetery I’ve known since I was a boy as the Goodman family plot is there. Unbenownst to me, so was the last resting place of a man who despite his talent (and one of his works being compared to equal Handel’s Messiah) fought terrible racism and often had to battle to conduct, even gain admittance, to his own concerts.

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The grave is that of Samuel Coleridge Taylor, a mixed-race composer who was born in Holborn in the late nineteenth Century. Described by writer (and man who seemed to know every square inch of London) Charles Dickens, who described the area as:

“the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner as a club for tom cats”.

Coleridge-Taylor (as he became to be known, due to an error on his sheet music at the printers) was the son of an English woman and an Sierra-Leonean man who’d met in 1874. Daniel Taylor, his father, returned to Africa in 1875 leaving Alice, his mother, to bring him up alone – indeed its doubtful his father even knew his son existed.

He was raised in Croydon and the gift of a violin from his grandfather, who was a keen player of the violin when he wasn’t being a blacksmith, showed the young Samuel was a musical genius. Latterly studying at the Royal School of Music aged fifteen, under the famous composer Charles Villiers Stanford, although his skin colour created a furore.

His career was bolstered by his contemporaries: in an age where racism was rife it’s heart-warming to see fellow musicians such as Edward Elgar seeing past his colour and encouraging the genius of his talent, referring to him:

“by far and away the cleverest fellow amongst the young men.”

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network

His greatest work is regarded to be the first part of a three piece collection of Cantatas called Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. The premier at the Royal Academy was so great that people were refused admission, except Sir Arthur Sullivan, (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) who said to Taylor-Coleridge “I’m always an ill man now, my boy, but I’m coming to hear your music tonight even if I have to be carried”. The piece was regularly performed until the outbreak of the Second World War.

“It’s like a meteor strike coming across the sky. I’d never seen or heard anything quite as magnificent as this.”

Thelma Jacobs, Historian, Metropolitan A.M.E Church

A caricature by René Bull, capturing Samuel’s passionate and involving conducting style. Via The Royal College of Music

He often travelled to America where he conducted workshops for black musicians, and firmly believed in their equal rights. He was welcomed far more in the United States than he was in Britain, where his music literally sang to the African-American community.

Yet he had to endure racial prejudice. His daughter commented that when local youths began hurling abuse at him, he gripped her hand so tightly it actually hurt her. A year before his death, he was denied the right to conduct ‘A Tale of Old Japan‘ and had to pay for his own seat at his own concert.

Three statues in Croydon
Installed by cycling charity Sustrans, Sanuel is now immortalised in Croydon alongside other famous residents – Ronnie Corbett and Peggy Ashcroft. © Londonist 2019

A combination of pneumonia and exhaustion (his works rewarded him little, financially so he undertook several teaching posts from places such as the Guildhall School of Music and Trinity College of Music) led to his tragically early death at the age of thirty seven. Collapsing at West Croydon station in August 1912 and cheerfully conducting a hallucinatory orchestra just before his passing in his bed. 

A portrait of Samuel by Stanmore Gibbons, 1890’s. Now proudly on display at the Museum of Croydon

King George V granted his widow a pension of £100 a year to ensure the financial security of his wife, former classmate Jessie Walmisley and their two daughters. Like many composers, he saw little royalties from his works and his death contributed to the formation of the Performing Rights Society, which to this day collects fees for the live performing of sheet music. 

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The music world mourned him deeply. Yet, today, his words remains largely forgotten and it’s puzzling to me how a man who was once entertained at the White House by President Roosevelt is in this quiet cemetery in Sutton. His splendid memorial features words by his close friend and poet Alfred Noyes, and a few bars of music from Hiawatha.

Death mask, 1912 – via the Royal College of Music 

 


Further reading and references:

Biography and further images from the British library

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was one of the few black classical composers to catch the public’s imagination. Why haven’t more done the same, asks Stuart Jeffries

The Lydian Singers biography of Samuel 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor & His Music in America, 1900 – 1912

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