RCM Museum celebrates the life of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

The composer's musical fight for civil rights is the focus of an intriguing new digital exhibition, explains Anna Barry

RCM Museum celebrates the life of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

The Royal College of Music Museum has launched a new digital exhibition about composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (above). Released to coincide with Black History Month, the exhibition, entitled Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the musical fight for Civil Rights celebrates the composer’s important role within civil rights movements in the UK and the US at the turn of the 20th century. Coleridge-Taylor was a student at the college and the exhibition draws on his remarkable collections which are held at its museum.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875. His mother Alice was British, while his father hailed from Freetown in Sierra Leone. Dr Daniel Taylor had met Alice while studying in Britain, but most likely returned to West Africa without realising that she was pregnant. He never met his son. The young Coleridge-Taylor was given a violin by his maternal grandfather, and soon displayed great musical talent. He joined the Royal College of Music in 1890, studying composition under Charles Villiers Stanford. Coleridge-Taylor soon became a musical celebrity thanks to his trilogy of cantatas, known collectively as The Song of Hiawatha. Until World War II, this was one of the most performed choral pieces in Britain, rivalled only by Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

Coleridge-Taylor has often been 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. The new exhibition seeks to flip this narrative by examining the composer’s role within black networks. It demonstrates that Coleridge-Taylor was active within Pan-African groups in the UK, participating in important meetings and writing for publications including the African Times. The exhibition also explores his relationships with leading civil rights activists, including W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T Washington.

Perhaps most significant was Coleridge-Taylor’s status in the US. As the composer 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 (below), and became the first black man to conduct a white orchestra. He even visited President Roosevelt at The White House.

As the exhibition will demonstrate, Hiawatha itself can be read as a commentary on race. Although the piece (based on Longfellow’s famous poem) is about Native Americans and their encounter with European Christians, Coleridge-Taylor was aware that its themes resonated with the experience of African Americans. He made this connection explicit by working the theme of a ‘negro spiritual’ into the overture. This is just one example of the composer’s musical activism.

To find out more about the exhibition click here. You can also share your thoughts with @RCMMuseum on Twitter, using the hashtag #BlackHistoryMonth

Anna Barry is museum research assistant at the Royal College of Music’s Museum of Music

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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