British audiences loved the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Between the world wars the Royal Albert Hall in London mounted a costumed performance of his The Song of Hiawatha, for two weeks every summer. No other composer has had such festivals — but its creator never knew, for he died from pneumonia aged 37, in 1912.
Born in central London in 1875, he relocated to Croydon with his mother before his third birthday. He lived in the area for the rest of his life. He studied at the Royal College of Music in Kensington for seven years 1890-1897, abandoning violin lessons for composition. His mother’s family was musical — she had a brother who was a professional musician and he had at least two children who were musicians. Coleridge-Taylor's father was a doctor — an African from Sierra Leone who may not have known that he had fathered a child in London. The boy's complexion and appearance showed a strong African heritage.
Coleridge-Taylor's music reached all over Britain, and The Song of Hiawatha attracted much attention. Based on Longfellow's epic poem of Native American life, it attracted Americans. African Americans welcomed this creation and invited Coleridge-Taylor to America. He went there three times. The first visit was in 1904 and was spent largely with black Americans. They welcomed his 24 piano pieces based on 'negro melodies', most being spirituals. One used a Nigerian theme obtained from an African resident in London, for Coleridge-Taylor never went to Africa.
Trained in the European concert music traditions, Coleridge-Taylor's compositions (he wrote for the theatre, an opera, choral works, and instrumental pieces) sometimes had black titles in his use of 'Negro' and 'African'. Exactly when he got to know black people in Britain is uncertain, but contacts had been made by 1897. There was another black resident in Croydon, a Mrs Mattie Thrift, an American married to a wealthy English businessman. She had been Miss Marion Louise Lawrance or Lawrence, a singer in an all-black choral group which toured to Australia and New Zealand in the 1880s. That choir was directed by Frederick Loudin, who is known to have returned to Britain in 1897. Coleridge-Taylor said that it was Loudin who introduced him to American spirituals.
When did the composer meet Mrs Thrift? Is this a Croydon black connection which influenced the composer in his years at the Royal College of Music? We may never know; Mattie Thrift died in 1907 leaving two daughters in their teens.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) has been the subject of biographies, articles, web sites, CD booklet notes, a novel, and entries in encyclopaedias. Yet he remains elusive as a person, misunderstood as a musician, and a victim of the innocent prejudices of commentators. On 25 May, Jeffrey Green, independent historian, will provide an insight into Coleridge-Taylor life, at the Black Cultural Archives, Brixton, 1pm-2pm. Tickets £3.