Saturday, August 15, 2015

'His Music Lives. It was his own, and drawn from vital fountains'

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (picture from
Today is the 140th anniversary of the birth, in Holborn in London, of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the late nineteenth-century composer (as distinct from the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge!).  Coleridge-Taylor never knew his father, a doctor from Sierra Leone, who in turn had returned there without knowing he had a son.  His mother Alice moved to Croydon; there Samuel was brought up and lived for the rest of his life.

He learnt the violin and sang in two church choirs, and polished his talent diligently enough that, in 1890, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music.  Here he was taught by Stanford, knew Holst and Vaughan Williams, and had his first publications.  A few years later he received a commission for the Three Choirs Festival on the recommendation of Sir Edward Elgar, who called him 'the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men'.  

Not long afterwards came his greatest success.  This was 'Hiawatha's Wedding Feast', the first of a trilogy of cantatas, which catapulted him to his greatest fame, but, alas, not to riches.  He had sold the rights outright for a trifling fee, and all his life had to work hard for a living, not least after his marriage to Jessie Walmisley and the births of his son Hiawatha and daughter Gwendolyn.  

Here is the first movement of his violin concerto in G minor (the second movement and the third movement are also available to listen to):

His African background led him to take a deep interest in African and African-American culture and history; he collaborated with the American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and travelled to the U.S.A. on conducting tours.  He also made haunting arrangements of spiritual melodies, and saw himself as doing much the same work as Dvořák and Grieg had for the folk-music of their own cultures:

Coleridge-Taylor died, having collapsed at West Croydon railway station and succumbed a few days later to pneumonia, at the catastrophically early age of thirty-seven, and so never wore, as he might deservedly have done, the laurels of a great twentieth-century British composer.  He is buried within a few miles of his home in the cemetery at Bandon Hill in Wallington.  His life seems under-remembered today in his own south London, but all the same 'his music lives', as the epitaph on his grave, by his friend Alfred Noyes, proclaims: 'It was his own, and drawn from vital fountains.  It pulsed with his own life, but now it is his immortality.  He lives while music lives'.

Further reading and listening:

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