It’s fair to say, though unfortunate, that composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is not a household name. Although, during his lifetime, he was, without question, one of the most famous composers in the U.K. and the U.S.
However, this year being the 100th anniversary of his death, there has been a renewed interest in his music. Just two weeks ago, BBC Radio 3 devoted a week long series to his sadly too brief life and music, much of which was heard on the series for the first time since his death.
However, in an effort to bring him back to public consciousness, as well as his important achievements as a composer, the director of the Portland, Maine-based The Longfellow Chorus, and now filmmaker Charles Kaufman, are currently in post-production on a documentary film that he and his choral group produced, titled Samuel Coleridge in America.
It’s even more appropriate that Kaufman and The Longfellow Chorus made the film, since Coleridge-Taylor’s most famous work, the one that made him an overnight celebrity in the U.K., was his massive cantata for soloist, choir and orchestra, Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha, which was based on the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The film is scheduled to open with a premiere at the Nickelodeon Theater One in Portland, in March 2013, and from there, likely the film festival circuit and then hopefully television.
Below you can watch an 8-minute film clip from the documentary; but still, the question remains…
Just who was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor? I can’t put it into just a few words, so I will leave it up to Kaufman himself (in an edited description) to discuss the man, his importance to the development of music, and his film.
“Part of the reason both the composer Coleridge-Taylor and his music have “fallen into the cracks of time” as I like to say, is because, as a person of bi-racial identity, Coleridge-Taylor represents an artistic personality living and working within both European and African music and cultures, and, at the same time, being not entirely embraced by either.”
“He was born in London in 1875 to a white Englishwoman best described as a servant class female companion. His father was a medical student from Sierra Leone. Coleridge-Taylor was abandoned by his father even before he was born and was raised by his mother and stepfather. His mother and his real father never married. It’s an intriguing story because the records are not all that clear.”
“As a composition student at Royal College in the 1890s, Coleridge-Taylor was trained by the top English Classical music composers of the age…When Coleridge-Taylor graduated in 1898, he was fully trained in the language of the European Classical music tradition, but lacked understanding of music outside of that tradition.”
“From 1897 onward — when he first met and collaborated with the American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar — Coleridge-Taylor became increasingly interested in composing Classical music that reflected his African heritage. This was during the period in Classical music that we call “Romantic Nationalism”. Being Classically trained, and an admirer of both Dvorak and Grieg, Coleridge-Taylor also began to use at first African-American sources and then African-British sources for his classically based music.”
“Now, all this is interesting because around the time that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was blending music reflecting both his African and his European ancestry, the modern American Civil Rights movement was being born in post-Reconstruction America. Around1900, American blacks began calling for equal access to American society against a backlash from the remnants of the antebellum South. It is during this period, 1890-1914, that the first great African-American leaders of the Civil Rights movement emerged: Dunbar, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Dubois and James Weldon Johnson, to name some prominent ones. At the same time, the roots of what would become American jazz in the 1920s was born in the Ragtime music of Vaudeville, and this is represented by the prominent composers Scott Joplin, Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson. All of these people were inspired by or knew Coleridge-Taylor personally.”
“When Coleridge-Taylor was brought to America for the first time in 1904 by the African-American choral society in Washington, D. C., that bore his name, The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, it was not clear in this country that it would be Ragtime and not Classical music that would ultimately produce the music that African-Americans would identity with, and that it would become mainstream, “classical” in its own way — what we witness today in such things as Jazz at Lincoln Center.”
“Why all of these people are important to the story of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor — Dunbar, Booker T, Dubois, JR Johnson — is that each of them saw what Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was accomplishing in the traditional, conservative arts culture of England during the early years of the 20th century and they were inspired by him. Around the time Samuel Coleridge-Taylor died (100 years ago this past September 1) he symbolized the level of education, acceptance and achievement Africa-Americans sought for themselves in America during what we now refer to as the Jim Crow era.”
“And, again, to underscore the divide, and ultimately, the difficult fate of Coleridge-Taylor : no one knew in 1912 that American blacks would not ultimately identify themselves with European Classical music, but instead with American jazz and gospel. And it is important to know that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor aligned himself against Ragtime as a legitimate form of music — but he did this without the chance of living to see the long term development.”
“He died at age 37, but one could imagine him living into his eighties or nineties and dying in the 1960s. His story would have been entirely different. As it is, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor has been largely forgotten by lovers of European Classical music and by lovers of jazz. Indeed, the man who has “fallen through the cracks of time.” Does that awaken an ironic image of the “invisible man”?”
“But the predominant motivation of our film is the answer this question: Who was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor? As viewers will see in the film, time after time I’ve asked our performers if they’ve ever played a work of Coleridge-Taylor before doing so for our film, and time after time they’ve said, as does violinist Naira Underwood in our trailer (BELOW), “This is my first time hearing or performing any work by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.”:
“The list of musical works by English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912) — a graduate of the Royal College of Music in London — includes over one hundred compositions written in the classical style of the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods: operas, cantatas, ballets, symphonic works, instrumental compositions, theater music and songs. In itself, such a prodigious output in such a short time — Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was only 37 when he died — makes Coleridge-Taylor a worthy subject for a documentary.”
“But as a celebrated, cultured person of biracial identity in the early 20th century, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor also stood out as an international figure capable of bridging racial and social divides. Nowhere was this more valued than in the United States, where people of African descent were striving to gain equal access to education and opportunity in the decades following Reconstruction. To well-meaning people of all races and classes in America, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor symbolized a bright future, in which, above all, everyone would be recognized for their accomplishments and contributions to society.”
Hopefully this is whet your appetite to see the film when it’s released: