By Valerie Kauffman, historic-site interpreter, Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

During February 2018, the Johnson Victrola Museum, located at 375 S. New St. in Dover, Del., will be celebrating Black History Month with a four-part series of programs entitled “The Evolution of Black Recorded Music.” During the series, we will be playing the recorded performances of noted artists like Jelly Roll Morton, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson who all held exclusive contracts with the Victor Talking Machine Company and had active stage careers. The first program in the series, entitled “The Roots (1900s to 1910s),” will take place on Feb. 3 at 1 p.m.

In this article, however, I am featuring another extraordinary musician whose compositions were recorded by the Victor Company. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a British composer mostly known for his three cantatas based on the epic poem, “Song of Hiawatha,” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Samuel premiered the first section in 1898, when he was 22. “Onaway, Awake Beloved,” Op. 30, No. 1, from the cantata, “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” was recorded by the Victor Talking Machine Company as part of the Education Department’s collection and was listed in the high school textbook, “What We Hear in Music,” along with unit-plan suggestions for the teacher.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel was named after the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was born on Aug. 15, 1875 in London. His father, Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, was African. Originally from Freetown, Sierra Leone, Taylor was part of a Creole family that had been rescued from transport into American slavery by the British Navy because of the abolition of this practice in Britain. Samuel was raised in Croydon, Surrey by his British mother, Alice Hare Martin. There were numerous musicians on his mother’s side and her father, Benjamin Holman, played the violin. He started teaching Samuel when he was a small child. His ability was apparent at a young age so Holman also paid for him to have violin lessons.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor as a young student

Samuel’s college music training, however, was supervised by Col. Herbert A. Walters who was a silk merchant, army volunteer, amateur musician and honorary choirmaster of St. George’s Church, Croydon. Walters arranged and paid for Samuel to study at the Royal College of Music beginning at age 15. Showing great ability in arrangement, Samuel was encouraged to change from violin to composition as his major. He studied under the distinguished composer and professor Charles Villiers Stanford.

After completing his degree, Samuel became a professional musician. He was appointed a professorship at the Crystal Palace School of Music. He conducted the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire and the choir for the Rochester Choral Society, and was made the resident conductor of the Westmoreland Festival. In 1910, he assumed the position of professor of composition at the Guildhall School of Music. The Handel Society hired him to lead their concerts, and he did so until his death. Along with his many jobs and work as a private teacher, he acted as adjudicator at various festivals and competitions making his first appearance in the role at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in 1900.

African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar met with Samuel in London in 1896. He set Dunbar’s poems “African Romances,” “Dream Lovers: An Operatic Romance,” “Candle Lightin’ Time” and “A Corn Song” to music. He composed arrangements of the “Twenty-Four Negro Melodies,” Op 59, based on songs such as “Deep River” of which he had heard the Fisk Jubilee Singers perform during their British tour. His program notes for those piano melodies stated “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.” “Deep River—Negro Melody,” Op. 59, No. 10, is another piece that was recorded under the direction of Victor’s Education Department and was used in the music curriculum designed for high school students.

In 1900, Samuel gave the opening address at the first Pan-African Conference in London. He was the youngest representative present. The conference featured 30 delegates, mainly from England and the West Indies, but only a few Africans and African Americans. Among them was one of America’s leading Black intellectuals, W.E.B. Dubois, who was to become the torchbearer of subsequent Pan-African conferences or congresses as they later came to be called. Along with his friend Dusé Mohammed Ali, Samuel founded “The African Times and Orient Review,” a Pan-Africanist monthly journal first published in London in 1912.

Samuel embarked on tours of America in 1904, 1906 and 1910, and in 1904, he had a private and unprecedented audience with President Theodore Roosevelt in which Roosevelt expressed his desire for more liberal attitudes towards people of color. On that same trip, he met with Booker T. Washington who wrote the preface for Samuel’s “Twenty-Four Negro Melodies.” He conducted the combined forces of the United States Marine Band and an African American choir which was called the Coleridge-Taylor Society in his honor. During the 1906 tour, he presented his compositions “Atonement,” “Quadroon Girl” and “Hiawatha.” This trip took him through the Midwest to St. Louis, Detroit and Milwaukee, and to Toronto, Canada. Exclusive white orchestras as well as African American choral groups invited him to conduct when he toured America in 1910.

On Sept. 1, 1912, at the age of 37, Samuel passed away due to overwork and pneumonia. His wife, Jessie Walmisley Coleridge-Taylor, was provided 100 pounds as a monthly pension from the British government for the rest of her life. The Guildhall School of Music arranged bursaries for both of his children, Hiawatha and Gwendolyn. His children went on to become professional musicians themselves.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor with his family. From left, Samuel, his children Hiawatha and Gwendolyn, and his wife Jessie
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor with his family. From left, Samuel, his children Hiawatha and Gwendolyn, and his wife Jessie

Due to early record corporations like The Victor Talking Machine Company, today we are able to reach back and discover the exciting artists that were the foundation of our modern musical culture. We can also gain a new understanding of the contributions that they made to the music industry as well as to society as a whole. Join us at the Johnson Victrola Museum at 1 p.m. on each Saturday in February 2018 to hear presentations from the series, “The Evolution of Black Recorded Music,” and re-discover these musical pioneers.