An introduction to... Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

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An introduction to... Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
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From a humble background, Coleridge-Taylor went on to become admired by Elgar, likened to Mahler in the US, and fêted as one of Britain’s top composers. Here, we take a quick look at his life and style. For a complete biography, click here.

 

1875 Born on 15 August in London he grows up in Croydon with his mother after his father Daniel, a talented doctor, leaves to take up the position of Imperial Coroner for the Gambia.

1890 Having sung in the local church choir and shown promise as a violinist he enters the Royal College of Music where his Te Deum secures him composition lessons with Stanford.

1895 Success and acclaim come quickly. His Dvorák-influenced Clarinet Quintet arouses ‘exceptional interest’ according to The Times, and is played in Berlin, while Novello publishes a series of his anthems. At the Royal College of Music he performs alongside fellow students Holst and Vaughan Williams, while also supporting himself by teaching violin at the Croydon Conservatory.

1898 Elgar persuades the Three Choirs Festival to commission from Coleridge-Taylor a Ballade in A minor for orchestra. His cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast is then a huge success, performed by choral societies countrywide.

1899 Having married fellow student Jessie Walmisley (their children Hiawatha and Avril both will become composers and conductors) he completes two Hiawatha sequels plus a symphonic poem inspired by Haitian revolutionary and former slave toussaint louverture.

1904 Now professor of composition at Trinity College of Music, he visits the US where a 200-strong choral society named after him organises a festival of his music, and President Roosevelt receives him at the white house.

1908 He produces an accomplished set of Symphonic Variations on an African Air (1906), the choral rhapsody Sea Drift  (1908) and beautifully crafted  incidental music for Alfred Noyes’s play The Forest of Wild Thyme (1910) at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Rarely financially secure, however, he also writes salon music to make ends meet.

1912 Two years after becoming professor of composition at the Guildhall School of Music he completes his Violin Concerto. Weakened by overwork, however, he dies unexpectedly from pneumonia in Croydon in September. In his final delirium, he envisages himself conducting his
new concerto.

 

Influences

While Coleridge-Taylor was a music student, Dvorák was producing much of his greatest music in ‘national Romantic’ style, and he became a guiding light for the young man – who also idolised his teacher Stanford, and passionately admired Grieg. All three are palpable influences on Coleridge-Taylor, who used classical forms but infused them with romantic feeling and a strong
sense of narrative or mood-painting.  

Vocal writing

Coleridge-Taylor sang in choirs before he played the violin, and he had an innate gift for vocal writing. Even before he entered the RCM he had a Te Deum published, and choral works form the largest part of his output. His gift for strong, memorable themes is found especially in a work like Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.  

Light music and melody

Though works like the early Symphony and late Violin Concerto show he could handle extended sonata forms with the best of them, Coleridge-Taylor preferred suites of short genre pieces or dance movements in his non-vocal works. Like many composers of his time was happy to supply tuneful pieces for the salon. 

‘Ethnic’ colouring

Coleridge-Taylor studied collections of African and West Indian music, and Negro Spirituals in an effort to create a ‘romantic Nationalism’ of his own rooted in black music. Pentatonic melody, syncopated rhythm and bluesy harmony are among the elements that make his music distinctive. An important collection was his transcription of 24 Negro Melodies for piano.

 

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