We’re posting a series of blog posts on a variety of Black Anglicans who have influenced us personally, or the church, as a whole. Kenson’s choice is a musician.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (some call him SCT as an affectionate nickname) was born in Holborn in 1875 to an English mother and a father originally from Sierra Leone. His mother named him after Coleridge, the poet.
As a young man SCT sang in the choir of St Mary Magdalene at Addiscombe in Croydon. Here he was exposed to the substantial inheritance of choral music possessed by the Anglican Church. This was an important experience in the young composer’s education.
Conscious of his African descent, some of Taylor’s compositions were influenced by traditional African music. Yet his music was popular because their style is obviously late-Victorian/Edwardian. He learned the art of composition under Charles Villier Stanford (known for his settings of Anglican services), and when SCT’s career took off, he was known to, and indeed befriended by many prominent English musicians—Elgar, Sullivan, Parry, to name a few.
We can get a sense of SCT’s fame and status as a Black composer he was received by President Roosevelt at the White House in 1904. In the then racially segregated America, this no doubt would have caused a sensation.
London papers hailed SCT’s “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” as a masterpiece, but he gave up the copyright of his magnum opus for 15 guineas (roughly £6,000.00 in today’s money), even though thousands of copies of the score were later sold. SCT had to work so hard for so little, on top of composing, he also needed to conduct, write and teach in order to earn enough to support his family. Unfortunately, this is still the case for many musicians in our time.
He died in 1912, a few days after collapsing on the platform of West Croydon Station. He was only 37. His music, which once caught the English public’s imagination in the most extraordinary ways, is now mostly forgotten. SCT’s early death may be a major factor as to why his music, like so many other worthy musicians and composers, never made it to the canon of western classical music.
Here’s a recording of the overture to “The Song of Hiawatha”