Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the Musical Fight for Civil Rights

Royal College of Music

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
This exhibition is about composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and his key role in British and American civil rights movements around the turn of the twentieth century.
Early Life
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875. His parents were Alice Hare Martin and Dr Daniel Taylor. Whilst his mother was British, his father hailed from Freetown in Sierra Leone. Like many of his fellow countrymen, Dr Taylor had come to Britain in pursuit of an education. He met Alice in London, but appears to have returned to West Africa without knowing that she was pregnant. He would never meet his son.

The young Coleridge-Taylor was raised by Alice and her family in Croydon, on the outskirts of London. Coleridge-Taylor lived in the area for the rest of his life. Although there were many black people in Victorian Britain, Coleridge-Taylor was something of a curiosity for many.

In the 1880s Coleridge-Taylor was given his first violin by his Grandfather, who also taught him how to play. The youngster soon displayed a great aptitude for music, and joined a local church choir. Here he was noticed by a wealthy choirmaster who encouraged him to apply for a place at the Royal College of Music in South Kensington.

Musical Beginnings
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor joined the Royal College of Music in 1890. He was one of the first black students at the College. An earlier black student was Amanda Aldridge – the daughter of celebrated African-American actor Ira Aldridge.

Coleridge-Taylor was awarded a scholarship for the violin. However, he was soon drawn towards composition instead, which he went on to study under the composer and conductor Charles Villiers Stanford.

Reports from Coleridge-Taylor's time at the College reveal that he excelled in most of his lessons - here his piano teacher calls him "one of my cleverest pupils". Several of the young composer's works were performed at the College, and he soon gained attention from prominent musical figures - including George Grove.

First Engagement with Black Networks
It is not clear when Coleridge-Taylor first became involved with black political and cultural networks in London. However, the first evidence of this involvement is a poem he wrote celebrating a half-century of Liberian independence from European colonialists. A Liberian Patriotic Hymn was published in the African Times in March 1897. It included the opening lines: "Beloved Liberians! Now from Bondage free/May ‘God our Strength’ your Motto and your hope for ever be!" Documents held at the Royal College of Music Museum reveal that Coleridge-Taylor was later made a Knight Official of the Liberian Humane Order of African Redemption. This is the highest decoration the Liberian government can bestow.

Shortly after his Liberian Patriotic Hymn was published, Coleridge-Taylor became part of a network of influential African Americans. These included the poet, novelist and playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar, who famously coined the line “I know why the caged bird sings”. When the young composer heard that this celebrated poet was in London, he went to the house where he was staying and asked for permission to set some of his poems to music. Dunbar agreed, and Coleridge-Taylor’s African Romances were published later the same year.

In June 1897 Coleridge-Taylor and Dunbar gave a joint recital in London, attended by many influential American expats. This was reviewed by The Times, who said: "It is a pity that the recital given by these two coloured gentleman [...] was not more widely known." Coleridge-Taylor and Dunbar later collaborated on an operatic romance entitled Dream Lovers. This was performed in Croydon in 1898.

The Song of Hiawatha
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor would become best known for his trilogy of cantatas, collectively known as The Song of Hiawatha. These were based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem of the same name (published in 1855) which relates the adventures of a Native American hero called Hiawatha and his love Minnehaha. The poem is regarded as a classic example of American Romantic literature. Longfellow had also written an abolitionist volume entitled Poems on Slavery (1844) which Coleridge-Taylor probably knew.

Towards the end of Longfellow’s poem, European missionaries arrive in order to convert Hiawatha's people to Christianity. This element of the narrative resonated with the experience of African Americans.

Coleridge-Taylor made the connection between Native Americans and African Americans explicit by modelling the main theme of his Hiawatha Overture on the spiritual ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’. The first part of the cantata, 'Hiawatha's Wedding Feast' was premiered in 1898. 'The Death of Minnehaha' followed in 1899, with 'Hiawatha's Departure' concluding the trilogy in 1900.

Coleridge-Taylor was not the first composer to admire Hiawatha. His hero Dvořák claimed that Longfellow's poem had inspired the second movement of From the New World (Symphony number 9.) This work had also been influenced by what Dvořák called “negro melodies”. He had been introduced to this genre of music by a black student during his time working at the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York.

Identification with Hiawatha
Coleridge-Taylor much admired Longfellow’s Hiawatha and felt a close affinity with its hero. Perhaps this was because Hiawatha spends part of the poem searching for his absent father who had abandoned his mother – much like Coleridge-Taylor’s own father had done. The composer also imagined himself and his (white) British fiancée Jessie as Hiawatha and Minnehaha. He sent her this telegram on the morning of their wedding. It reads: "You shall enter in my wigwam for the heart's right hand I gave you." This is a quotation from Longfellow's poem. Coleridge-Taylor has signed it "Hiawatha", underscoring his identification with the poem's hero. 

Jessie was a pianist who had also been a student at the Royal College of Music. Her family had initially objected to her marriage on account of Coleridge-Taylor’s mixed race. The couple went on to have two children. Their daughter Gwendolyn (who later changed her name to Avril) was also a conductor, composer and pianist.

Coleridge-Taylor named his son Hiawatha. Known as ‘Watha’ amongst his family, he went on to conduct performances of his father’s works. In this photograph Hiawatha is dressed as his heroic namesake.

Musical Anti-imperialism?
Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the first part of Coleridge-Taylor’s cantata, was premiered at the Royal College of Music on November 11th, 1898. This was just a week after Kitchener had forced the retreat of the French in the Eastern Africa. Historians have referred to this victory as “the high water mark of British Imperialism”, and “the high point of Victorian political and popular engagement with Africa”. Both Coleridge-Taylor’s race and the themes he drew attention to through The Song of Hiawatha have led scholars to argue that Hiawatha was implicitly anti-imperialist.

Coleridge-Taylor’s anti-imperialist stance can be contrasted with that of his contemporary, Edward Elgar. At the Birmingham Festival in 1900, Coleridge-Taylor debuted Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, whilst Elgar premiered his Dream of Gerontius. Elgar’s work was based on Cardinal Newman's poem of the same name, which was famously associated with the military hero General Gordon. Elgar much admired the devout Gordon, who had died in Khartoum in 1885. The composer owned a copy of Newman’s poem annotated by the General. The contrast between the themes of Gerontius and Hiawatha have led musicologists to contrast Elgar’s high imperialism with Coleridge-Taylor’s anti-imperialist stance.

The Song of Hiawatha proved to be a huge success. Coleridge-Taylor soon became a celebrity, as this contemporary cartoon amusingly suggests. Hiawatha was performed by choral societies across the country, often conducted by Coleridge-Taylor himself. Copies of sheet music for various arrangements were sold widely, though the composer profited little from these sales.

African American Networks in London
In 1900 Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a leading delegate at the first Pan-African Conference in London. He took responsibility for arranging musical entertainments. Historians have subsequently referred to this important meeting as “one of the starting points for the Afrocentricism that constituted an important strand of the American Civil Rights Movement sixty years later”. Many prominent black civil rights leaders, politicians and educators were in attendance. 

Amongst the most important delegates was W. E. B. Du Bois, an activist, writer, sociologist and historian who was a key proponent of Pan-Africanism. He was to become one of the most important civil rights leaders in American history. Coleridge-Taylor became friends with Du Bois, who would later write about the composer in his work comparing the status of black people in America and Britain.

Coleridge-Taylor was involved with several other Pan-African groups at around this time. Documents in the Royal College of Music Collections demonstrate that he was on the Executive Committee of the United African League in 1902. This is an organisation that appears to have been short-lived.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in the USA
 As Coleridge-Taylor came to prominence in Britain, African Americans were suffering from one of the worst periods of political, social, cultural and economic repression they had experienced since the Civil War. In this context, the success of a black composer across the Atlantic captured the imagination of many. Coleridge-Taylor was celebrated as an example of what could be possible for black people – he became a symbol of hope. When the composer first visited the US in 1904, he found himself a major celebrity. He conducted performances of his music given by a choir formed in his name, and became the first black man to conduct a white orchestra.

Coleridge-Taylor was fêted wherever he went. He visited the White House, where a newly elected President Roosevelt found time to talk with him. He was also given many gifts, including this authentic Native American bag. Another gift was a silver cup, presented to the composer at a reception in Washington. It was inscribed with the words: "It is well for us, O brother, that you came so far to see us".

Harry Burleigh was the student who had introduced Dvořák to African American spirituals. As a baritone, he sang in the Washington performances of The Song of Hiawatha under the composer’s baton. Burleigh and Coleridge-Taylor would become close friends. The baritone gave this photograph to Jessie Colerige-Taylor in 1933, long after her husband's death.

After Hiawatha
In 1905 Coleridge-Taylor’s Twenty Four Negro Melodies were published. This collection of African and African American songs were presented by the composer as a collection of folk music. In the introduction to this work he boldly stated his aim: “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk-music, Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for Negro melodies.” This work represented an attempt to change attitudes towards black music, rescuing its reputation from the dehumanising ‘coon songs’ and minstrel shows which were so popular in contemporary Britain and American. 

In his introduction to Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor stated: “[It was through Loudin that] I first learned to appreciate the beautiful folk music of my race.” He referred to Frederick Loudin – an extraordinary man who had toured the world with a group of black musicians, performing African American spirituals. Called the Fisk Singers, they performed in order to raise funds for Fisk University – a college for black students in Tennessee. Coleridge-Taylor became friends with Loudin when he toured Britain – he later referred to him as "the best friend I ever had". Fisk appears in the back row of this photograph, standing second from the right.

The preface to Twenty-Four Negro Melodies was written by Booker T. Washington – a prominent educator and author who many regarded as a spokesman for African Americans. While W. E. B. Du Bois advocated for protest against white oppression, Washington proposed a system wherein black people would work within the racist structures imposed by whites. These differences in ideology meant that the two leaders would come into conflict, but Coleridge-Taylor knew and respected them both.

In America, Coleridge-Taylor’s reputation was much strengthened by the support of (white) virtuoso violinist Maud Powell. One of the first great artists of the recording era, Powell recorded a version of Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Deep River’ from Twenty-Four Negro Melodies. This would become exceptionally popular – she later described it as her best-selling recording. Maud Powell was an ardent supporter of African American music, and performed to raise funds for the education of black musicians.

In 1906 Coleridge-Taylor’s Symphonic Variations on an African Air was performed for the first time. This was based on the theme of an African American spiritual. Musicologists have described this work as representing “an understanding of the conditions of black history”.

In 1910 Coleridge-Taylor wrote The Bamboula for the Litchfield Festival in Connecticut. It was based on an African dance melody from the West Indies. At performances, the composer was famously dubbed "the black Mahler".

Death and Memorialisation
In 1912 Coleridge-Taylor died suddenly and unexpectedly. He became ill whilst on a train, and died of pneumonia a few days later. There was a national outpouring of grief at his death.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's death is reported on the front page of this magazine. Music and words from Hiawatha are included below his portrait: "O, the long and dreary winter/O, the cold and cruel winter." This underlines yet again the way in which the composer was associated with the character of Hiawatha.

Huge crowds attended Coleridge-Taylor’s funeral in South London. This picture (taken from The Daily Sketch) shows a delegation of mourners from South Africa leaving a floral tribute in the shape of Africa at the composer’s grave. This poignant image demonstrates how important the composer had become as a symbol of hope and progression within the black community.

In 1912 a memorial concert was held for Coleridge-Taylor at the Royal Albert Hall, with proceeds going to his young family. Many were appalled at the way in which Coleridge-Taylor had profited little from the extraordinary success of his works, leaving meagre funds behind him. This outrage led to the establishment of the Performing Rights Society.

The Legacy of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Until World War Two, The Death of Hiawatha would remain of the most performed choral pieces in Britain. Its popularity was rivalled only by Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. 

From 1924 to 1939 the Royal Albert Hall held an annual Hiawatha Season. For a fortnight children in Native American fancy dress flocked to see a spectacle which boasted 200 dancers, wigwams, a snow storm, a waterfall, and a medicine man portrayed by a genuine Mohawk called Chief Os-Ke-Non-Ton. These performances were conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, and attended by many important guests – including members of the Royal Family.

The Song of Hiawatha also achieved success around the globe. This photograph is of the Student Choir at Yenching University in Peking (now Beijing) who performed Hiawatha's Wedding Feast in 1929.

In 2013 an impressive feature-length documentary about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was produced by the Longfellow Chorus in Maine. It focuses on the composer’s important relationship with America.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is typically remembered because of his unusual and important status as a black musician who gained prominence in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain – a black man in a white man’s world. However, as this exhibition has sought to demonstrate, he was also an extremely important figure within black networks. He was not only an extraordinarily talented musician, but a pioneer and advocate for black culture whose influence was felt far beyond the musical sphere.

Credits: Story

Concept: Gabriele Rossi Rognoni & Anna Maria Barry

Text & image sourcing: Anna Maria Barry

Curatorial assistance: Leah Barngrover

Special thanks to: Carmen Masardo, Richard Martin, Erin McHugh, Michael Mullen

The majority of materials in this exhibition belong to the Samuel Taylor Coleridge Collection at the Royal College of Music Museum.

We are grateful to the Royal Albert Hall archive for the use of two images.


Jeffrey Green - Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Musical Life (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011)

Paul Richards- 'A Pan-African Composer? Coleridge-Taylor and Africa' in Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Autumn 1002) pp. 235 - 260

Doris Evans McGinty - '"That You Came so Far to See Us": Coleridge-Taylor in America'in Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Autumn 1002) pp. 197 - 234

Credits: All media
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