Welcome to my blog, where I take pleasure in words and pictures, be they my own or those of others. I'm a creative individual, and the crafty side I explore on my 'other blog', Picking Up The Threads, which I hope you'll visit too. I'm sure you understand that I have sole copyright of my original work and any of my contributions, so please ask if you want to use them. A polite request is rarely refused. So, as they used to say on the BBC's 'Listen With Mother' radio programme, many years ago: "Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin."

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Music and Poetry

I first met this talented young man last year, whilst visiting London’s Docklands Museum at Canary Wharf, where this striking portrait of him immediately grabbed my attention. The museum is housed in an historic warehouse and contains objects, personal stories, artwork and music that have left a strong mark on the capital. It is the music which provides me with the perfect link to this week’s Sepia Saturday.


The sheet music pictured here was in the same glass display cabinet as the picture of the young man, and the one on the left in particular was to make his name. He was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), a talented  composer and conductor who flourished in late Victorian London. Sadly he was to die far too early, at the age of thirty seven, of pneumonia, possibly brought about by overwork as he struggled to make ends meet for his family.  Of mixed race, with a black doctor father and an English mother, he was brought up in the London suburb of Croydon and began taking violin lessons at a very early age, before later studying at the Royal College of Music. He went on to become one of the country’s most popular composers of choral music well into the early Edwardian age.



















Black Mahler, the website of Charles Elford, Samuel’s biographer explains: “ Coleridge-Taylor’s epic choral trilogy 'Song of Hiawatha' makes this funny, generous and modest young man a worldwide sensation overnight.”  He undertook several tours of America where he was hailed a cultural hero by African Americans, but “Coleridge-Taylor struggles against financial ruin, personal tragedy and seismic obstacles throughout his short life.” There’s a link to a radio interview on the Black Mahler web page, given by his biographer, which furnishes us with more details. And here is a link to the BBC Music page where you can hear clips of his music and a brief audio-portrait of the composer,  and where an explanation is given for his impoverishment. He sold the rights to his cantata ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, for just fifteen guineas. It became a huge success but Samuel was to see none of the royalties. When he died King George V made an allowance of £100 a year to Samuel’s widow and two young children, one of whom he had named Hiawatha, so moved had he been by Longfellow’s poem. A memorial concert also raised a tidy sum of £1,440 for the family, but the scandal of the family receiving no benefits from the commercial success of 'Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’ was the impetus for the formation of the Performing Rights Society. The guildhall School of Music arranged bursaries for his children, who both went on to be professional musicians themselves.

Photographed in 1901 by John  Henry Kempsell, National Archives UK

The British Library Online Gallery has more information and pictures, including his gravestone, with a memorial written by his friend, the poet Alfred Noyes, and at the base of the plinth a few lines of his music are engraved, along with the words: Thus departed Hiawatha, Hiawatha the Beloved.


22 comments:

  1. Such a sad story. I feel like I have read about him before, but I don't think I have. Thank you for sharing. I love the photographs.

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    1. It was the photograph in the museum cabinet that drew me in.

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  2. Such a handsome young man & so talented. Even in his unfortunately short life, he composed so many choral and orchestral works. His name is very familiar, so I'm thinking I must have sung some of his pieces at some point in my life - either solo, or in one chorus or another. A really nice post!

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    1. I expect you have Gail, his works are still popular with choral societies.

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  3. Sometimes you wonder if justice is only a theory and nothing is practiced that is similar to it.

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  4. Fascinating piece, Nell. Of course, less well established artists and composers, today, are still being sold 'short' in the digital age.

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    1. You’re absolutely right Martin; it would be awful to think of them being impoverished in the same way these days.

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  5. Great post on topic, but you didn't give us the dates of his birth and death. I assume early twentieth century. Maybe Victorian?

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    1. I’ve put that right now Barbara. Both the links I provided give his dates and I mentioned that he flourished in the late Victorian/Early Edwardian era, so you’re spot on.

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  6. I wonder what the seismic obstacles were? Besides being of mixed race in Victorian London which I'm sure was difficult to say the least. What a legacy in the Performing Rights Society which I'm now reading about! Music copyrights are much in the national news in the U.S. at the moment with the Robin Thicke vs Marvin Gaye family case over Blurred Lines. Great post.

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    1. Thanks Helen. Listening to the radio interview by his biographer and reading the British Museum links, I think the racial aspects can not be underplayed. His daughter records his response to the groups of local youths who would repeatedly shower him with insulting comments about the colour of his skin: “When he saw them approaching along the street he held my hand more tightly, gripping it until it almost hurt.”

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  7. Very interesting - I had never heard of this man, but obviously should have done. He must have had such a strange life, and been so unusual in his own circle of friends. Must have been a strong character, too.

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  8. It's difficult to see "Samuel Coleridge-Taylor" without reading "Samuel Taylor Coleridge." But the poignant story was worth the struggle to keep the name straight.

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  9. I googled him up on Youtube. Here is a link to his Hiawatha overture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkqaSqwHlsw His dates are 1875 - 1912 according to Wikipedia : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Coleridge-Taylor . Thank you for introducing me to this mor=st interesting composer :)

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  10. Like Wendy, I reversed the surname and thought "that can't be him can it?" But as I read the story was far more fascinating than that of a reversed name. A most enjoyable read.

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  11. A sad but very appropriate tribute. The Docklands Museum is a wonderful place to visit, and when we went there it wasn't even crowded!

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  12. Well the memories came flooding back with this post - learning to play his music. My music is now at my daughter's place so I must have a look next time I'n around there. And I had no knowledge about the man himself. Thanks for that. And for memories of Hiawatha.

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  13. We're ALL confusing him with the poet (the reverse name business) -- he's clearly wonderful in his own right...great post!

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  14. I'm pleased to meet another admirer of this gifted composer. I first encountered him years ago when orchestras first promoted "black composers" concerts. The programs were such a forced mix and of course quite patronizing so thankfully they have disappeared. But Coleridge-Taylor's music deserves to be played alongside other contemporaries like Elgar or Sullivan. Unfortunately he was living in an era of institutional discrimination and societal prejudices. He did have enough success that he had a number of souvenier postcards made that I've seen in the sales.

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  15. What another sad story of a wronged artist. I didn't know much about him, but hadn't thought he was English.

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  16. It's wonderful when we stumble across these things that open the door to bringing back the life to those before us. However sad some stories are at times, the story of them or place comes to life once again, and their memory lives on!

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  17. Fascinating...there's a whole "American Indianist" movement but I wasn't aware of this composer. Good stuff!

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