He called himself an Anglo-African and fought against race prejudice all his short life. He incorporated black traditional music with concert music, with such compositions as African Suite, African Romances and Twenty Four Negro Melodies. The first performance of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast was described by the principal of the Royal College of Music as 'one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history', and this work was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic.
And yet, the works of this talented composer are now out of fashion; little of his music is available in printed form. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is today all but forgotten in the country of his birth. He was born in Holborn, London on 15th August 1875. His father, Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, came from Sierra Leone to Britain in the 1860s, studied medicine, qualified as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, practised in Croydon, went back to Africa, was appointed coroner of the Gambia in 1894.
Samuel was named for the poet, and in 1890, aged 15, he entered the Royal College of Music as a violin student. The RCM principal hesitated over Coleridge-Taylor's colour before admitting him, apparently worried that the other students might object. After two years, he swapped violin studies for composition. His tutor, Charles Villiers Stanford, challenged him to write a clarinet quintet without showing the influence of his favourite composer, Brahms. Coleridge-Taylor did it, and when this early work was revived in 1973, the New York Times critic called it 'something of an eye opener…an assured piece of writing in the post-Romantic tradition…sweetly melodic.'
In 1896, he met the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and set some of his poems to music (African Romances), and in 1897 the two men gave joint performances. He also met Frederick J Loudin, former director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the choir that introduced African American spirituals to British audiences in 1873. By 1898 Elgar, then England's leading living composer was describing Coleridge-Taylor as 'far and away the cleverest fellow amongst the young men.' A few weeks later came the triumphant Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, which captivated the public, and established him as one of Britain's outstanding young composers. However, despite its enthusiastic reception, Coleridge-Taylor personally reaped very little reward for this great work. In order to live, he conducted and taught. From 1903 to his death in 1912, he was professor of composition at the Trinity College of Music in London, as well as the conductor of the Handel Society, the Rochester Choral Society, and conducted many provincial orchestras.
He visited America on several occasions, at a time when it was still extremely hard, if not impossible for talented black Americans to fulfil their cultural aspirations, and was therefore seen as a champion for their cause. He met Booker T Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to the White House. He was received in America much more warmly than in England, where he suffered intense racism. He was, and remained till his death, an ardent supporter of the Pan African Movement. In 1912, he contracted double pneumonia and died at the age of 37. He left two children, Hiawatha and Gwendolyn, who both had distinguished careers as conductors and composers.