Celebrating the life of Sierra Leone’s ingenious classical music composer – Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Abdul R Thomas – Editor – The Sierra Leone Telegraph

29 January 2012

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Ten years ago, I discovered the music of Samuel – Coleridge Taylor, whilst driving on the M1 Motorway to London from Leeds, on a very quiet and wintry Sunday morning. It was not until the end of a beautiful Adagio – which I wished had never ended, when the Classical FM Radio presenter announced that the piece was by no other than Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

How proud I felt, when the presenter added that the composer’s father had hailed from Freetown – Sierra Leone.

Since then I have become a great fan of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s music, rivalling the likes of Mahler, Mozart, Brahms, Elgar and Dvorak. This year marks the centenary of the death of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 2012) whose father, Daniel Hughes Taylor, a medical doctor, was a Sierra Leonean.

His centenary is being marked by a yearlong festival in Croydon and elsewhere, in which it is hoped that most if not all of his works, will be performed as well as talks given about his life and work.

It is hoped that through the year long festival planned, Sierra Leoneans in the UK and abroad will become more aware of Coleridge-Taylor’s prodigy, which should make him and his music stand along the great composers of our time.

It would be more than fitting, for Sierra Leoneans – where ever we may be, to pay tribute to Coleridge-Taylor, by spreading awareness of his Sierra Leonean heritage, life and music and for which, there is plenty of hope for some form of national recognition in Sierra Leone – of his life and times.

Here in the UK, it is expected that sierra Leonean musicians would be able to perform some of his works during this his centenary year.

Meanwhile, it would be good to see Sierra Leoneans in large numbers at some – if not all of the year long events planned, in particular – the world premiere of his operatic work ‘THELMA’ on the 9th, 10th and 11th February 2012.

Who was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor?

He called himself an Anglo-African and fought against race prejudice all his short life. He incorporated black traditional music with concert music, with such compositions as African Suite, African Romances and Twenty Four Negro Melodies.

The first performance of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was described by the principal of the Royal College of Music as ‘one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history’, and this work was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic.

And yet, the works of this talented composer are now out of fashion; little of his music is available in printed form. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is today all but forgotten in the country of his birth.

He was born in Holborn, London on 15th August 1875. His father, Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, came from Sierra Leone to Britain in the 1860s, studied medicine, qualified as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, practised in Croydon, went back to Africa, was appointed coroner of the Gambia in 1894.

A prolific composer during his short lifetime, he received great public acclaim and became known both nationally and internationally-his setting of Longfellow’s Hiawatha was just as popular as Handel’s Messiah in Victorian England.

Although he composed Hiawatha when he was only twenty-three, Coleridge-Taylor already had reached a published opus of twenty-nine compositions.

Coleridge-Taylor belonged to two decidedly different cultures and therefore, his compositional style was affected by two underlying currents: the classical tradition that dominated his training at the Royal College of Music, and the African and African-American folk music that was introduced to him through contacts with members of his father’s race.

In 1890, aged 15, he entered the Royal College of Music as a violin student. The RCM principal hesitated over Coleridge-Taylor’s colour before admitting him, apparently worried that the other students might object. After two years, he swapped violin studies for composition.

His tutor, Charles Villiers Stanford, challenged him to write a clarinet quintet without showing the influence of his favourite composer – Brahms.

Coleridge-Taylor did it, and when this early work was revived in 1973, the New York Times critic called it ‘something of an eye opener…an assured piece of writing in the post-Romantic tradition…sweetly melodic.’

By 1898 Elgar, then England’s leading living composer was describing Coleridge-Taylor as ‘far and away the cleverest fellow amongst the young men.’

A few weeks later came the triumphant Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, which captivated the public, and established him as one of Britain’s outstanding young composers.

However, despite its enthusiastic reception, Coleridge-Taylor personally reaped very little reward for this great work. In order to live, he conducted and taught.

From 1903 to his death in 1912, he was professor of composition at the Trinity College of Music in London, as well as the conductor of the Handel Society, the Rochester Choral Society, and conducted many provincial orchestras.

One hundred years ago, the fast-developing County Borough of Croydon was emerging as a significant residential and business hub, gateway to the imperial metropolis. And in 1912, one of Croydon’s most celebrated – and loyal – citizens, a composer and conductor renowned on both sides of the Atlantic and in Europe, tragically died of pneumonia brought on by persistent overwork.

His premature death at the age of 37 was the occasion of great local, national and, indeed, international mourning.

He was an exceptionally prolific composer, for one who died so relatively young: there are over eighty published works, including a substantial body of church music.

His burgeoning talent was first nurtured as a boy and a youth singing in Croydon churches before going up the Royal College of Music where he became a Scholar.

His obvious gifts were quickly recognised by the leading established composers and musicians of the day: he was a favourite composition student of Sir Charles V Stanford [tracks 6&7]; Elgar an admirer who recommended Coleridge to be given a festival commission that he said he was too busy to fulfil: the result was the striking Ballade in A minor [track 19].

Unabashedly proud of his African heritage, he was revered by African ex-pat communities on both sides of the Atlantic.

He toured the US on three occasions, principally to conduct orchestras, both black and white; was feted by African Americans (he wrote many pieces based on slave spirituals and African themes [tracks 8, 9, 11, 13, 15&16]); was hailed in the US press as ‘The African Mahler’; and invited by President Theodore Roosevelt to the White House for a private one-on-one meeting where they discussed inter-racial issues in both Britain and America.


A year long Centenary Celebration of his Life and Works – Diary of Events throughout 2012:

Tuesday 31st January, 1pm – Lunchtime Concert by students from the Croydon Centre for Young Pianists at the Fairfield Halls, Park Lane, CR9 IDG, Croydon, featuring piano music by SC-T and original compositions inspired by SC-T (Presented by Croydon Music and Arts). Tickets: from 0208 688 9291 or www.fairfieldhalls.co.uk

Thursday 9th February, Friday 10th February & Saturday 11th February, 7.30pm – World Premiere performances of SC-T’s rediscovered opera THELMA, op. 72 by Surrey Opera at The Ashcroft Theatre, Park Lane, Croydon, CR9 IDG. Conductor – Jonathan Butcher, Director – Christopher Cowell, Designer – Bridget Kimak. Tickets: £18-£25 from 0208 688 9291 or www.fairfieldhalls.co.uk.

9th & 10th February at 6pm: Pre-performance talks (admission £2 on the door): ‘Thelma – My discovery of Coleridge-Taylor’s manuscripts’ in the Ashcroft bar by Catherine Carr, PhD.

Tuesday 14th February, 7.30pm: Concert by the John Law Trio in the Arnhem Gallery, Fairfield Halls, Park Lane, Croydon, CR9 IDG, including some jazz versions of SC-T’s compositions. Presented by Soundpractice Music Ltd. Tickets from 0208 688 9291 or www.fairfieldhalls.co.uk

Friday 23rd March, 8pm – Recital by students from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, including SC-T’s Sonata in D minor op. 28 for violin & piano, Trio in E minor op. 6 for violin, ‘cello & piano and his Nonet op.2 for 2 violins, viola, ‘cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon, horn & piano. Venue – The Braithwaite Hall (Croydon Town Hall), Katharine Street, CR9 1ET. Tickets: £8 from 0208 657 7909.

Tuesday 3rd April, 1pm – Lunchtime concert by Megan Whiteley, Fred Scott, Cornelius Bruinsma and friends at Fairfield Halls, Park Lane, Croydon, CR9 IDG to include items by SC-T, in aid of SCAT (Skeletal Cancer Action Trust). Presented by Soundpractice Music Ltd. Tickets from 0208 688 9291 or www.fairfieldhalls.co.uk

Saturday 28th April, 3-6pm – Open rehearsal working on SC-T’s Symphony in A minor op. 8 and Zara ‘s Ear-rings op. 7 – Rhapsody for voice and orchestra. The rehearsal will be followed by tea and an informal performance of the two works at approximately 7.30pm. Please contact Jonathan Butcher ionathanbutcher@bluevonder.co.uk if you would like to take part etc. Venue – Clyde Hall, Clyde Rd. Croydon, CRO 6SZ.

Tuesday 22nd May, 1pm – Lunchtime Piano Recital by Chisato Kusunoki at the Fairfield Halls, Park Lane, Croydon, CR9 IDG. Programme to include music by SC-T. Presented by Soundpractice Music Ltd. Tickets from 0208 688 9291 or www.fairfieldhalls.co.uk

Thursday 24th May, 8pm – Recital by students from the Royal College of Music including SC-T’s Piano Quintet in G minor op. 1, Fantasiestiicke for String Quartet op. 5 and his Clarinet Quintet in A major op. 10. Venue – the Braithwaite Hall, (Croydon Town Hall), Katharine Street, CRO 1ET. Tickets: £8 from 0208 657 7909 or at the door.

Saturday 23th June, 7.30pm – Summer Concert given by the Croydon Bach Choir, Conductor Tim Horton, at St Matthew’s Church, Chichester Road, Croydon, CRO 5NQ. Programme to include SC-T’s A Tale of Old Japan op.76. Tickets: 0208 405 2172 or at the door www.croydonbachchoir.org

Saturday 28th July, 3-6pm – Open rehearsal working on SC-T’s Toussaint Overture op. 46, Symphonic Variations op. 63 and his Rhapsodic Dance The Bamhoula op.75. The rehearsal will be followed by tea and an informal performance of the three works at approximately 7.30pm.

Please contact:JonathanButcher-jonathanbutcher@blueyonder.co.uk if you would like to take part etc. Venue – Clyde Hall, Clyde Rd. Croydon, CRO 6SZ.

Wednesday 15th August, 8pm – A Birthday Celebration on the actual day SC-T was born 137 years ago. Cake will be cut and music will be performed! Venue: Croydon Masonic Centre, 73 Oakfield Rd, Croydon, CRO 2UX, where SC-T first sang as a treble. Please contact Jonathan Butcher – jonathanbutcher@blueyonder.co.uk for further details.

In 1881 the young SC-T, aged 6, was painted by a group of Croydon amateur artists. This painting is in the National Portrait Gallery; another is in private hands. The “African” costume suggests that his complexion and appearance were the attractions for the artists.

The unknown painter of the second image (not shown) gave the portrait to SC-T’s mother, Alice. Copyright © National Portrait Gallery by Walter Wallis.

Saturday 1st September, 11am – An SC-T Picnic Pilgrimage on the actual day he died, 100 years ago. Commencing at St Mary Magdalene Church, Canning Road, Addiscombe, Croydon, CRO 6QD (parking available) we will walk to various houses, churches etc. where SC-T lived, worked, sung, got married etc. ending up at Aldwick, St Leonards Rd, where he died.

Picnics can then be consumed on Duppas Hill Recreation Ground. If the weather is inclement we can eat our picnics in the Parish Church Junior School. Jeffrey Green, author of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Musical Life will give informal talks along the route. Approximate length of walk – 2 hours.

After lunch those who wish can take a tram back to Lebanon Rd. tram stop – the nearest one to St Mary Magdalene. Sunday 1st September, 6.30pm – Civic Service – Festival Evensong at Croydon Minster, Church Street, Croydon, CRO 1RN sung by an augmented Minster Choir – Organist & Master of the Choristers, Andrew Cantrill. – Evening Service (Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis) in F by SC-T. – Psalm 150, Laudate Dominum, ‘O Praise God in his Holiness.’

Chant Stanford – SC-T’s composition professor at the Royal College of Music. – Anthem ‘By the waters of Babylon’ Psalm 137 by SC-T. – Hymn tunes – Luconor, Jesu, the very thought of Thee’ by SC-T and Engelberg, ‘For all the Saints’ by Stanford’. – Organ voluntaries and solos also by SC-T & Stanford.

After the service the choir sing part-songs by SC-T as wine is served to the congregation.

Throughout October – Black History Month – there will be a small exhibition dedicated to SC-T at Croydon Public Library and a window display at Waterstones bookshop in the Whitgift Centre.

Tuesday 9th October, 8pm – SC-T on Radio and Television, a rare opportunity to hear BBC broadcasts of two programmes about SC-T – ‘Great Lives’ and ‘Hidden History’. Some lantern slides will be shown. There will also be a performance of some of SC-T’s Twenty-Four Negro Melodies op. 59 for solo piano. Venue – The Braithwaite Hall (Croydon Town Hall), Katharine Street, CRO 1ET. Tickets: £8 from 0208 657 7909 or at the door.

Friday 2nd November, 7.30pm – SC-T’s Petite Suite de Concert op. 77 will be included in a concert to celebrate the Fairfield Hall’s 50th Anniversary. Venue – Fairfield Halls, Park Lane, Croydon, CR9 IDG. Tickets from 0208 688 9291 or www.fairfieldhalls.co.uk

Friday 23th November, 8pm – ‘The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story1, a talk by Charles Elford, author of Black Mahler followed by a short recital of some of SC-T’s songs sung by Patricia Robertson and Paul Sheehan. Venue – the Braithwaite Hall, (Croydon Town Hall), Katharine Street, CRO 1ET. Tickets: £8 from 0208 657 7909 or at the door.

Tuesday 18th December, 1pm – Lunchtime Concert by the Trinity Boys Choir, featuring songs and part songs by SC-T. Venue – Fairfield Halls, Park Lane, Croydon, CRO IDG. Tickets from 0208 688 9291 or www.fairfieldhalls.co.uk

Saturday 15th December, 7.30pm, – A Gala Concert programme to include SC-T’s Violin Concerto in G minor op. 80 and his Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. Performed by the specially formed Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Centenary Choir with orchestra. Conductor – Jonathan Butcher. Venue – TBA. Tickets: £8 from 0208 657 7909 or at the door.

If you would like to sing in the SC-T Centenary Choir please contact Sue Simpson – sandksimpson@talktalk.net 01883 347120.

Rehearsals will take place weekly from Thursday 13th September from 7.30 – 10pm at Clyde Hall, Clyde Rd. Croydon, CRO 6SZ. Sunday 30th December, 3pm…..and in conclusion.

On the very day Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Jessie Fleetwood Walmisley were married, and at the church where SC-T sang as a boy chorister, there will be informal performances of the composer’s works, followed by tea etc. Venue – St Mary Magdalene Church, Canning Road, Addiscombe, Croydon, CRO 6QD (parking available).

Admission free. During the year – a number of churches in the borough will be singing SC-T’s church music as part of their weekly worship. Please refer to the SC-T Network website (see below) for further details.

For ticket prices etc., where relevant or where they are omitted, and for more detailed information re any of the events listed in this brochure, please refer to the SC-T Network website (see below).

The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network The Network is in the process of organising and encouraging others to arrange events in 2012 across the country and is represented on the Croydon SC-T Festival Committee.

A programme of talks and walks around Croydon will be announced in due course and posted on the SC-T Network website. The Network will co-ordinate news, disseminate information and promote activities during the 2012 centenary year and beyond.

It was established at the end of 2009 by Sean Creighton of Agenda Services, Jeffrey Green, the author of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Musical Life and Fred Scott, pianist and teacher of the Croydon based Sound Practice. Further details about the Network, its newsletters and other material about SC-T can be seen on:

https://sites.google.com/site/samuelcoleridgetaylornetwork. It can be contacted via – sean.creightonl947@btinternet.com


  1. A week ago we went on a walk around Croydon to mark the September 1 centenary of SC-T’s death. Had conversation along the way with with one of the Croydon Festival members, who’s of Sierra Leonean heritage. A short report’s posted at: http://sct100pmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/coleridge-taylor-death-centenary.html.

    2 upcoming Rembering Samuel Coleridge-Taylor events in London can be found at: http://sct100pmcollective.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/remembering-samuel-coleridge-taylor.html.

  2. I am most heartened to have come across this piece during a SC-T search, especially as it’s on a site aimed at SC-T’s paternal folks.

    SC-T has become too much of a British or an American interest, so it’s great to see some interest in Africa, particularly in Sierra Leone.

    I’m UK-based, where we’re highlighting and delivering SC-T programmes for 2012-13 via the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor 100PM Collective (www.sct100pmcollective.blogspot.com), BTWSC (www.BTWSC.com), and British Black Music Month 2012 (www.BritishblackMusic.com).

    I’m however writing this from Accra, Ghana, where we’re presenting our free Remembering Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (15 Aug 1875 – 1 Sept 1912) – an African British musical genius programme at the WEB Du Bois Centre in Accra on Thursday March 29 2012, 3-5pm (www.btwsc.eventbrite.com). We might repeat the programme at the University Of Ghana in Legon. We’re certainly happy to make links with SC-T interested individuals and organisations, particularly outside the UK such as Sierra Leone.


  3. So good to know that the life and works of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor are now being recognised.

    Your readers may like to take a look at the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation website for further insights in his centenary year, into the legacy of this very special musician.


    Thank you

    Hilary Burrage
    Executive Chair – SCTF

  4. This achievement should make any Sierra Leonean proud. Is his name included in the history books of Sierra Leone?
    Our history should not be all about wars, colonialism and slavery, but positive achievements of people – like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

    The celebration is a full calendar of events, so I guess there should be something for everyone to enjoy. I must try and listen to music which he had composed.

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