Samuel Coleridge Taylor was a remarkable late nineteenth and early twentieth century composer whose life was cut tragically short before he could reach his full potential. Still, within his few years he managed to rise to a level of prominence that might be found surprising for a modern day audience who assume that racial attitudes of the era were more hardened than they actually were. Born in Britain to a Sierra Leonian doctor who was training at Taunton and King's College where he struck up a relationship with Alice Hare Martin. His father, Dr Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, probably returned back to Sierra Leone unware that his partner was pregnant and took no part in the raising of Samuel Coleridge Taylor. In many ways, his story was an increasingly common one within an increasingly cosmopolitan Empire. It is also significant that he became most famous for writing 'Hiawatha' with its poignant themes on the disappearing world of the North American Indians. Hiawatha became a firm favourite in the English musical calendar and encouraged many a dour concert goer to dress up in florid Indian costumes in a precursor to the 'Last Night of the Proms'.
His musical career started with violin lessons before Colonel Herbert Walters took an interest in his musical development and encouraged him in church choral music and even going so far as to sponsor him to attend the Royal College of Music where he won a violin scholarship before switching to study composition under one of Victorian Britain's leading composers; Charles Villiers Stanford. His early compositions were brought to the attention of of Edward Elgar and more importantly his publisher August Jaeger who went on to publish some of Samuel's earliest works in 1892. However it was the 1898 'Hiawatha's Wedding Feast that first brought Samuel to a popular audience. He followed up this success with more themes for Hiawatha making it eventually into a full program in its own right. His timing on writing about Indian culture was perfect from a commercial standpoint if not such a happy one for the poor Indians. Their declining way of life and the closing of the frontier were becoming immortalised in fiction and with the likes of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Circus touring Europe. Unfortunately for Samuel, he failed to retain the rights to this early success and when it went on to be such a phenomenal success he was unable to capitalise fully upon it. However, it did make his reputation and encouraged him to pursue his composition works. In fact, Samuel was to die before he saw the real heyday of the popularity of Hiawatha which was to be in the interwar years when it regularly sold out in the Royal Albert Hall in highly colourful concerts where visitors were encouraged to come in full Indian regalia.
Samuel was proud of his African heritage and was delighted to be invited to the The First Pan-African Conference in London in 1900 as one of the 37 delegates in what would later grow to be the Pan African Congress. However, it was on his tours to the United States that he saw out and out racism at a whole new level. He was disturbed at the extent of separation in the South despite being accepted as a guest of President Theodore Roosevelt and of being the first black musician to be invited to conduct the United States Marine Corps band. His experiences in America encouraged him to research more into African and slave folk music and to emulate composers like Brahms and Dvorak who were rediscovering the native musical heritage of their own countries. Samuel set Negro Melodies and tried to bring African themed tunes to a wider European audience. Many contemporary African-Americans were inspired by his relative success as a black man in an overwhelmingly white society and sought to learn from his example. His scores and music were assidiously studied in black colleges and by black musicians and his political activism only enhanced his reputation.
Highly respected by his contemporaries, his life was caught tragically short in 1912 when he died of pneumonia. No less a figure than King George V donated money to his widow demonstrating just how much a part of the establishment he had become. The inscription on his tomb was taken from Hiawatha and perfectly encapsulated his own life's story:
Too young to die
his great simplicity
his happy courage
in an alien world
made all that knew him