A once household name whose works were considered as mighty as those written by Handel, his catalogue is now little known. He was admired by the likes of Gilbert, Stanford and US President Theodore Roosevelt and whereas many of his contemporaries lie in Cathedrals or Abbeys, ‘the Black Dvorak’ lies in a plain cemetery in Surrey.
Bandon Hill is a Cemetery I’ve known since I was a boy, as both my Grandparents (and now, my Aunt) are buried there. Despite having known it for over two decades, I knew very little of its heritage. I’d looked into the history of it a few months previously and there was one grave I was particularly interested in finding, as its inhabitant was an immensely talented man who was subjected to racial discrimination throughout his painfully short career.
The grave was that of Samuel Coleridge Taylor, a mixed-race composer who was born in Holborn in the late nineteenth Century, in an area that Charles Dickens described 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 creole man.
His name being a nod to the Poet: his parents were unmarried. His father, a surgeon, returned to Africa in 1875. He was raised in Croydon, latterly studying at the Royal School of Music under the famous composer Charles Villiers Stanford. 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.”
His greatest work is regarded to be the first part of a three piece collection of Cantatas called Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. Its 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, and was considered as highly as Handel’s Messiah.
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 States than he was in Britain, where he was subjected to the most terrible 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.
A combination of pneumonia and exhaustion led to his tragically early death at the age of thirty seven, after collapsing at West Croydon station a few days beforehand. He was an immensely successful composer: so much so that King George V granted his widow a pension of £100 a year to ensure her stability at home. 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.
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.
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