My history hero: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Sir Lenny Henry, writer, actor and comedian, chooses a British composer and conductor as his history hero

Composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor visited the US on several occasions, where he was held in such high regard that he was dubbed the 'African Mahler'. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a British composer and conductor who wrote a number of acclaimed pieces of music. He entered the Royal College of Music as a teenage violinist but soon showed great ability in composition. In 1898, he composed the cantata ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’, which became a great success, and he was invited to perform in the US on several occasions. However, the royalty agreement he signed for ‘Hiawatha’ earned him relatively little money and his family were left impoverished when he died of pneumonia aged only 37.


When did you first hear about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor?

In the 90s I had a production company called Crucial Films and people would pitch ideas all of the time. One idea pitched was for a biographical drama on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and I regret it now that it didn’t happen.

What kind of person was he?

He was a son of an English woman called Alice Hare Martin and a man called Dr Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, a Creole from Sierra Leone who had studied medicine in London. He was not conceived in wedlock, and it’s possible that Dr Taylor went back to Africa before finding out that his beloved was pregnant. He was named Samuel Coleridge-Taylor after the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Brought up in Croydon, he learnt to play the violin from his grandfather. The young Coleridge-Taylor showed great ability and his grandad paid for him to have further violin lessons. Imagine this – the extended family then clubbed together for him to study at the Royal College of Music when he was 15!

What made him a hero?

He’s my hero because when success hit he was able to use it to tell stories about his racial origins in a musical way that might uplift the race as much as demonstrate how talented he was. He was a judge at music festivals; he was an example of a person of colour in the public eye receiving critical success. In America, he was embraced as a hero by the African-American community who in the earlier years of the 20th century knew the name of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor as well as they later knew that of Martin Luther King Jr or Malcolm X. His interpretation of melodies such as ‘Deep River’, as performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, was renowned and he wrote in the programme notes of those pieces that “what Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk music, Dvorak for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro melodies”.

What was his finest hour?

‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’ was so popular that the Royal Albert Hall had a ‘Hiawatha’ season, which recurred annually up until 1939. The film version is extraordinary to see – with hundreds of supernumeraries dressed in indigenous Native American clobber, yelping and whooping and singing along! There is something strangely uplifting about this and I can’t stop equating Coleridge-Taylor to someone like Prince, a prodigy.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

I was one of three black kids in my school and Coleridge-Taylor was perhaps the only black person studying at his college, so he stuck out in the same way I stuck out. I’m sure that can’t have been easy for him. I read that he suffered racial insults at school and at one time someone set his hair on fire – still, it didn’t stop him from studying the violin with extra intensity. Imagine that!

If you could meet him, what would you ask?

What’s the secret of your musical talent? Can you help me through grade five piano?

Sir Lenny Henry was talking to Claire Rawles.Sir Lenny Henry is a writer, actor and comedian. He co-founded Comic Relief and he is chancellor of Birmingham City University

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Television: Sir Lenny Henry co-presents the first episode of Our Classical Century on BBC Four, part of a year-long celebration of classical music across BBC television and Radio 3 from November