Like many music librarians I subscribe to the IAML (International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation centres) lists. The emails that come through on these lists include academic queries on subjects ranging from baroque music to heavy metal fanzines, pleas for help in finding obscure scores, and, by far the busiest section of the UK list, Inter-Library Loan requests. I find the ILL requests fascinating, they present a snapshot of what is about to be performed by amateur and semi-professional groups across the country. Christmas is heralded (in July!) by a plethora of John Rutter and Handel requests, but occasionally the list can come up with something really surprising.
While browsing through some recent emails after a series of rather uninspiring requests I suddenly came across Hiawatha’s wedding feast (available at the UL : item no. 3 in Mus.51.62) by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. “That’s unusual” I said to my colleagues, only to find another email requesting the same thing, and then a third looking this time for Coleridge-Taylor’s Sea drift (also in the UL : no. 1076 in Novello’s Part-song book, second series – M289.b.41.25). Now I was puzzled – why this sudden enthusiasm for Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, very popular in his day, but now rarely performed? A quick bit of Googling told me that 1st September was the centenary of Coleridge-Taylor’s death, and some more research showed why we should all be celebrating the life of this extraordinary man.
Born on August 15th, 1875 Coleridge-Taylor was the son of a doctor from Sierra Leone. His father was unable to find work in London, probably owing to the colour of his skin, so returned to Africa unaware that his lover, Alice Hare Martin, was pregnant. Throughout his life Coleridge-Taylor would meet with prejudice, but he overcame it triumphantly.
He learned to play the violin (his mother’s family were musical), and studied at the Royal College of Music. Elgar’s friend, the influential editor and critic, August Jaeger, was very impressed by the young man and told Elgar that Coleridge-Taylor was a “genius”. Elgar agreed believing that the composer was “far and away the cleverest fellow amongst the young men” currently composing in England.
His most popular work was Hiawatha’s wedding feast composed in 1899. This was to be the first of a cycle of works setting Longfellow’s epic poem The song of Hiawatha. Malcolm Sargent loved the cycle and conducted the work annually in a semi-staged production at the Royal Albert Hall between 1928-1939. (Annual productions had started in 1924). Members of the public even travelled to the event fully costumed as Native Americans!
Where Coleridge-Taylor’s influence was greatest was in the United States. He became a focal point for black America in a period that still lay deep in the shadow of the Civil War. The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society set up in Washington D.C. consisted of 200 African-American singers, who paid for Coleridge-Taylor’s visit to the States; while there he met President Theodore Roosevelt, a remarkable encounter for a person of colour in that period. Even today there are two schools in the US named after the inspirational composer.
Coleridge-Taylor died suddenly on September 1st, 1912. He had collapsed earlier in the week at West Croydon Station, managed to drag himself home unaided, but died a few days later of pneumonia aged just 37. Later that year his musician friends staged a benefit concert for his widow and children (young Hiawatha and Gwendolen) and raised over £300. A further indication of the esteem in which he was held was the award to his widow of an annual pension of £100 by King George V in 1913.