Samuel Coleridge Taylor (1875-1912): Britain’s Foremost Black Classical Music Composer (Afro Britain)

September 1st 2012 marked the centenary of the death of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the musician widely regarded as Britain’s foremost, even greatest, Black classical composer. 

Coleridge-Taylor was only 37 when he died.  His early death was a tragedy not only for music in Britain but also very immediately for his wife and his young children; and it was also a great loss for what became the civil rights movement, for Samuel had taken up that cause to some effect from his early twenties onwards.

Born on 15 August 1875, there remains some vagueness about the precise details of Coleridge-Taylor’s early experiences. The father-figure in his childhood years, his mother (Alice Hare)’s later husband, was not Samuel’s biological father, that person, Dr Daniel Taylor, having departed the UK to practice in Sierra Leone even before Samuel was born; and we do not really know how the baby Samuel found himself moving from his birthplace in Holborn, a then dismal part of central London, to the leafier environment of Croydon.

But Croydon was to remain the hometown of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor for the rest of his life, and it was in that town that his huge musical talent was spotted and nurtured, not least by a wealthy Croydon benefactor, Colonel Herbert Walters, who helped to pay for his childhood violin and piano lessons. The boy’s talent then took him at an early age to study performance and composition at the newly-established Royal College of Music in London, where by the age of eighteen in 1893 he had produced his first mature compositions, including the magnificent Opus 1 Piano Quintet*.

The first phase in Coleridge-Taylor’s musical output, like that of many others, was for small ensembles, but it was not for these that he remained well-known in the decades after his untimely death.

The work which attained fame for Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was his choral trilogy Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha, composed between 1898 and 1900. These compositions, which drew upon a notion (if not the reality) of what might now be termed ‘ethnic’ influences, became hugely popular and were performed almost everywhere in the UK, as well as in many other places.  Indeed, for many years up until the 1950s there were annual performances of the work in the Royal Albert Hall, complete with faux, or even genuine, AmerIndian costumes and much theatre.

In the meantime however Coleridge-Taylor the musician and the man had been forgotten, and almost all his works remained untouched, largely un-noted and certainly unperformed in various archives in the UK and the USA. Even his role (or roles; the details once again are not entirely resolved) in the early ‘rights’ movement in the UK, beginning with his founding membership of the great Pan-African Conference in 1900, were unrecognised in his homeland – though Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s three visits to the USA, and his increasing association with black activists there, were matters of considerable note, and even celebration, in that country.

Slowly however over the past fifteen or twenty years musicians and historians in the UK have begun to understand that Coleridge-Taylor was, and remains, a man of great significance, both for his music and for his commitment to equality. This recognition was taken forward first by the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society in Croydon, led by Daniel Labonne, a citizen of that town; and in a renewed general interest in the various publications concerned with the composer’s life.

The significance of this composer was also picked up by, amongst others, musicians in London and members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – who performed the Opus 1 Piano Quintet (prepared for performance by Martin Anthony Burrage) to considerable acclaim in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall for the first time in living memory, on 7 November 2001.

Since that time there have been increasing numbers of performances (and recordings) of Coleridge-Taylor’s work, not least under the sponsorship of HOPES: The Hope Street Association, an arts and culture / regeneration charity in Liverpool which for a decade organised an annual concert with much ‘community’ involvement.

And it was from the commitment of HOPES, with much encouragement from Daniel Labonne, that the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation arose in the summer of 2010.

The SCTF is a not-for-profit Community Interest Company set up

to promote the work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and to encourage interest and involvement in classical music [and] to use his life and work as an example of excellence in achievement and in overcoming adversity.

The website for SCTF is now live and is being developed as a major resource and information point for scholars, musicians and all others with an interest in the life and works of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.  This website is located at and proposals for contributions of articles and other materials are most welcome, as will ideas about how to take the work of SCTF forward in communities and concert halls in the UK and elsewhere.

At last, as the centenary of his death approaches, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is taking his place – whatever in the analysis this proves to be – in the history of music and of the struggle for human equality and rights.

Written January 2011 by Hilary Burrage, Director – The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation

Please enjoy one of his compositions, Deep River.