Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Hampstead couple turning the spotlight on pioneering black composer

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Picture: Public Domain

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Picture: Public Domain - Credit: Archant

“It seemed striking that the Philharmonic Orchestra was not just for white toffs!”

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Picture: Public Domain

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Picture: Public Domain - Credit: Archant

That's what pioneering composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor proved in the last years of Queen Victoria's reign, say the Hampstead couple who have taken on the task of keeping his legacy alive.

Mr Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn. He was the son of a doctor from Sierra Leone and Alice Hare Martin from south London - but it's in NW3 that Hilary and Tony Burrage have decided to be the standard-bearers for his legacy.

So to end Camden's Black History Month, the couple are celebrating him as a local hero.

While living in Liverpool in the 1990s, classical musicians Tony and friend Richard Gordon-Smith, along with Hilary, became fascinated by this little-known turn-of-the-century composer.

An invite to the first Pan-African Conference. Picture: Public Domain

An invite to the first Pan-African Conference. Picture: Public Domain - Credit: Archant

Hilary told the Ham&High: "Over the years, he wrote hundreds of different works - he was prolific - and this was completely off his own back."

Mr Coleridge-Taylor was born in 1875, on the same street now occupied by Holborn Library. His time in what is now the borough of Camden was brief: his family moved to Croydon when he was a baby.

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Hilary emphasised the pioneering scale of his achievements. "He was so important," she said. "People are interested in him. Many know the Song of Hiawatha but he did so much composing in such a short time."

Mr Coleridge-Taylor was, after obtaining sponsorship, able to attend the Royal College of Music aged just 17 - and, not long after, he was starting to make a name for himself as an innovative composer who wasn't afraid to create music inspired by the oppression he faced in fin-de-siecle London.

His most famous pieces were those based on excerpts from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem the Song of Hiawatha - which details a Native American love story. Mr Coleridge-Taylor also named his son Hiawatha. The pieces, called Scenes From The Song of Hiawatha, were performed at the Royal Albert Hall even years after Coleridge-Taylor's death.

Both in London and in the USA, the composer became involved in the time's civil rights movements.

At 25, he was the youngest delegate at the first Pan-African Conference in the UK - which took place at Caxton Hall in Westminster - and in the USA he became friends with campaigning figures including WEB Dubois, one of the co-founders of the NAACP.

He was also close friends with John Archer, a Liverpudlian who became the first Black British mayor in London.

Hilary added: "This is the second time we have done this particular event at the library. People are really interested. His best mate was John Archer.

"We feel very strongly that Coleridge-Taylor must not be forgotten. Not only was he one of Britain's greatest composers, who died at 37 leaving a massive body of work, but he was one of the the first people to be involved in the Pan-African Congress."

The Pan-African Conference, which became known in subsequent years as the first congress, was organised by a Trinadian lawyer Henry Sylvester Williams, who lived in Church Street, Westminster. It was the beginning of the pan-African movement which campaigned for decolonisation in Africa and the Caribbean.

Hilary continued: "Samuel went frequently to the States and has perhaps been more well-known there. He would insist on Black performers being part of his performances of his works.

"We need to look at the diversity of the performing arts. "

Mr Coleridge-Taylor married a fellow musician, Jessie Walmisley and had two children who were brought up in Croydon. But in 1912 he suffered "a chill" in the local train station. He had contracted pneumonia, and this killed him within weeks.

Hilary laughed that she and Tony, two white Scousers, are "not the most obvious custodians" of Coleridge-Taylor's heritage, but said making a point of his talent, his commitment to diversity, and his symbolic impact on the at times conservative classical world was hugely important to them.

She said: "It's about making sure we are fulfilling his legacy so that people know about diversity in classical music."

The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation's Camden Black History Month event built around the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor takes place tonight (Thu) at the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre above Holborn Library.