Samuel Coleridge-Taylor has been described in many words including ‘melodic’ and ‘an eye-opener’.
He was a trailblazer of his time, mixing the rhythmic beats of Africa, with the harmonic tunes of Western classical music. Born to an African father and English mother in 1875, it’s no wonder that the continent of Africa inspired him so much. He grew up not knowing his Doctor father, and was brought up in Croydon surrounded by people who didn’t look like him. He was teased and harassed for his skin colour, but despite this he was able to discover that his purpose was to play music to the world.
Samuel’s family of musicians played a key role in nurturing his talents. He was introduced to playing the violin at 5 years old, demonstrating early on that he was born to play. With a number of influential music teachers in his life, Samuel was fortunate that his family was able to pay for his lessons and encouraged him to apply for the Royal College of Music (RCM).
But despite his obvious abilities, when he arrived to audition at RCM he would once more face obstacles. The college hesitated to enrol him as they feared the reaction of other students. Eventually he would be admitted, on a full scholarship.
At RCM, Samuel was able to elevate to a new level in his musical journey. He was like a modern producer, mixing traditional African music with the orchestral sounds he was more familiar with. He released eighty two songs in his lifetime, but the song which ensured Samuel would leave his stamp on the world, was the release of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in 1898. With live performances being one of the main forms of entertainment, many composers would add music to poems, bringing the words to life. Samuel did this with Hiawatha’s wedding feast, adapting the native American romance into one of the biggest hits of the Victorian era.
Sadly however, Samuel’s life would be short lived coming to an abrupt end in the summer of 1912 at the age of just 37. Collapsing on the platform of West Croydon train station, Samuel was taken home where he developed pneumonia and died days later. He had a magnificent funeral, with fans lining the streets of Croydon. He still lives on within the memory of his hometown, with a youth centre in South Norwood bearing his name, as well as the blue plaque outside his former home. It’s time to bring this great Briton to the forefront once more, as a man who despite facing adversity, was able to overcome this and achieve greatness, leaving behind a phenomenal musical legacy.