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Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel (1875-1912)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

born: 15 August 1875
died: 1 September 1912
country: United Kingdom

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London on 15 August 1875, the son of Daniel Taylor and Alice Martin. His given names were a homage to the early nineteenth-century English poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and in 1905 he duly composed a rhapsody for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra based on Coleridge’s famous poem Kubla Khan. However, it was not Kubla Khan that became the main focus of the composer’s attention, but Longfellow’s The song of Hiawatha—indeed, so fascinated was Coleridge-Taylor with Longfellow’s epic poem that when, in 1900, his own son was born, he named him after it. In that year, Coleridge-Taylor had completed a triptych of choral settings from Longfellow’s text, of which the most famous panel is Hiawatha’s wedding feast. Right at the end of his short life (he died in 1912, at the age of thirty-seven) came two ballets derived from the same literary source, though he did not live to orchestrate them himself.

It was not by chance that Coleridge-Taylor became so deeply interested in the work of an American poet (another American whose verse he set to music was Walt Whitman—notably in a rhapsody for a cappella chorus based on Whitman’s Sea-drift): as the son of an immigrant from Sierra Leone he was proud of his black heritage, and he composed several works based on negro spirituals. He paid three highly successful visits to the USA between 1904 and 1910, where he conducted several of his works, including Hiawatha and another triptych based on Longfellow named Songs of slavery (later expanded to a set of five pieces called ‘Choral ballads’, Op 54). According to one account, the New York orchestral players were so impressed with him that they nicknamed him ‘the African Mahler’. In his cultivation of indigenous American melodies Coleridge-Taylor shows an affinity with Dvořák, who was a major influence on his work in general.

from notes by Misha Donat © 2023


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