Composer Profile: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Creator of ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ & ‘Thelma’

By David Salazar

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, born on August 15, 1875, would go on to become a prominent conductor and composer.

Born in Holborn, London, he would be brought up in Croydon, Surrey by his mother and stepfather. His early musical interests were championed by his grandfather and his extended family would eventually arrange for him to study at the Royal College of Music at the age of 15.

During his time at the institution, he would take up composition. Upon completing his degree, he would be appointed professor at the Crystal Palace School of Music and conduct the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire.

Coleridge-Taylor would start to become a reputable composer in his early 20s with Edward Elgar among his early champions.

Coleridge-Taylor would embark on a tour through the U.S. after the premiere of his hugely popular “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.” There, he was invited to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt and struck up strong relationships with poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois.

During his tours through the U.S., he became more actively interested in his father’s racial heritage, learning that he had descended from African-America slaves who were freed by the British and evacuated from the American colonies at the end of the Revolutionary War. Some of those African-Americans went to Nova Scotia before eventually moving to Sierra Leone, a colony for freed black men and women established by the British.

Coleridge-Taylor never managed to gain major profits from his work as a composer as he often had to sell the rights for his works to make ends meet. As a result, he sold the rights for his famed “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” for 15 guineas; the piece would go on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

He died on Sept. 1, 1912.

His two children, Hiawatha and Gwendolyn, would have careers in music. Gwendolyn would go by the name Avril Coleridge-Taylor and would also become a successful conductor-composer.

Major Works

“The Song of Hiawatha” was so popular that Coleridge-Taylor created two sequels that would eventually be married into the three-part “The Song of Hiawatha.” “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” is undeniably his most famous work and has become a mainstay of the choral repertory in Britain.

He also composed an opera entitled “Thelma,” but unfortunately, the manuscript had long been believed to be lost. Scholar Catherine Carr managed to find some manuscripts for the piece and assembled a libretto; a full score and vocal score are currently cataloged at the British Library.

The work would go on to have its world premiere in 2012 at the Surrey Opera.

Watch and Listen

Here are performances of scenes from “Thelma.”

And here is a recording of “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.”



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