Samuel Coleridge-Taylor with his wife, Jessie, and their children Hiawatha and Gwendolyn (Avril) © Royal College of Music (1/2)
A Christmas card displaying photos of Samuel, Jessie, Gwendolyn (Avril) and Hiawatha, 1906. © Royal College of Music (2/2)
The composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, was born in London in 1875 to a Sierra Leonean father and a white British mother. His prodigious musical talent won him a a violin scholarship to the Royal College of Music for four years and a number of early successes, such as his five anthems, encouraged Coleridge-Taylor to become a professional composer.
On 30 December 1899 Coleridge-Taylor married Jessie Sarah Fleetwood Walmisley (1869-1962), who had been a fellow student at the Royal College of Music. They had a son, Hiawatha, and a daughter, Gwendolyn (later Avril), who both went on to have musical careers. The pictures show Jessie, Samuel, Hiawatha and Avril outside the Coleridge-Taylor home, 10 Upper Grove, South Norwood, London. Both the children went on to become professional musicians.
Coleridge-Taylor’s black heritage was important to him and inspired several of his works: the overture to Hiawatha; the symphonic poem Toussaint l’Ouverture (1901) concerned with Haiti; and the operatic romance Dream Lovers (1898) in co-operation with the African-American poet Paul Dunbar. Coleridge-Taylor used African, Caribbean, and American themes in his 24 Negro Melodies (1905) which was published only in the US. Like his close friend, the MP John Archer, he was involved in the Pan-African movement, attending the first Pan-African conference in London in 1900. He was also visited in Britain by leading musical African-Americans, including Harry Burleigh and Clarence Cameron White, who encouraged performances of his works in black US colleges.
Coleridge’s musical success has led him to be dubbed ‘the African Mahler’. Yet, as Phillips notes, his fame did not exempt him or his family from racial prejudice and harassment – both he and his wife were subject to racist abuse. In her biography, his daughter Avril recalls her father’s response to the insults he would receive from local youths: “When he saw them approaching along the street he held my hand more tightly, gripping it until it almost hurt.”
In August 1912, on the threshold of breakthroughs in Europe and the USA, Coleridge-Taylor died of acute pneumonia brought on by exhaustion from overwork. He was 37 years old. His funeral was a major public event with a memorial concert held in his honour. The fact that his family would receive no royalties from his work caused a great scandal and was instrumental in the movement to ensure legislation on rights and royalties for artists.