The Greatest Composer of All Time

In 2019, BBC Music Magazine named Johann Sebastian Bach as the greatest composer of all time. The magazine asked 174 current composers to vote for their favourites, of which Bach came out on top. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) followed second, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) third, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) fourth, and Claude Debussy (1862-1918) a respectable fifth. Why does Bach stand head and shoulders above all the other composers that have been and gone throughout history? He came from a family that produced over 50 musicians in 200 years, yet J.S. Bach surpassed them all to become the nation’s favourite.

Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) – Elias Gottlob Haussmann

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on 31st March 1685 in Eisenach in the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, Germany. He was the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645-95), the town musical director, and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt (1644-94). Bach’s father taught him to play the violin from a young age, and his uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645-93), taught the young boy how to play the organ. Bach had several uncles and cousins who played various instruments and worked as organists or composers, all of whom had a great impact on Bach’s childhood. Sadly, his parents died when Bach was ten years old, leaving his older brother Johann Christoph (1671-1721) as his guardian.

Johann Christoph worked as the organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf, where he also taught Bach everything he needed to know about the instrument. His brother also gave him lessons on the clavichord and introduced Bach to some of the top composers of the day, including Johann Christoph’s former tutor, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706).

Whilst living with his brother in Ohrdruf, Bach attended a local school where he studied theology, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. In 1700, Bach enrolled at St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, which extended his music knowledge as well as providing a prestigious academic education. Bach joined the school choir and took organ and harpsichord lessons from Georg Böhm (1661-1733), a German Baroque organist and composer at the local church.

Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Kirche

After graduating from St Michael’s School in 1703, Bach found a position as a court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst III (1664-1707) in Weimar. Still in his teens, Bach used the opportunity to develop his reputation as an organist. After seven months, rumours of his skill spread to neighbouring towns, including Arnstadt, located 19 miles from Weimar. A new protestant church in Arnstadt invited Bach to inspect their organ and give a harpsichord recital to mark the opening of the building. In August 1703, Bach became the official organist at the church, which until 1935 was known as New Church. Today, it is called Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Kirche because of its association with the composer.

As the church organist, Bach worked with other musicians and a choir. After a couple of years in the post, Bach grew from a teenager into a self-important man who was not afraid to raise his opinion. Bach disliked the singing standard of the choir and, on one occasion, described one member as a “Zippel Fagottist” (weenie bassoon player). The man retaliated by attacking Bach with a stick and, although Bach complained, the man was not reprimanded. Instead, the authorities advised Bach to lower his expectations of the choir.

Bach continued to assert his self-appointed authority on those who he deemed beneath him, including his employer. In 1705, Bach requested four weeks leave to visit the Baroque composer and organist Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) in the city of Lübeck. This involved a 280 miles journey, which Bach mostly travelled on foot over several days. Bach failed to return after his allotted four weeks, returning after four months instead. The 21-year-old organist most likely lost his job as a result.

Portrait of the young Bach (disputed)

In 1706, Bach started working as the organist at Divi Blasii, a Gothic church in Mühlhausen. Bach received a higher salary and was no doubt pleased with the better quality of the choir. He also convinced the church to renovate the organ, a task that needed much fundraising. After four months in his new job, Bach married his 23-year-old second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach (1684-1720).

Whilst working in Mühlhausen, Bach composed a cantata for the inauguration of the new council held on 4th February 1708. Gott ist mein König (God is my King), consists of seven movements written for “four separate instrumental ‘choirs’, set against a vocal consort of four singers, an optional Capelle of ripienists and an organ.” The lyrics are based on Psalm 74, in which the author expresses the pleas of the Tribe of Judah in Babylonian captivity. Although Bach only intended the cantata for the festival, it became his first published work later that year. It is also Bach’s only known cantata published in his lifetime.

In 1708, Bach moved back to Weimar, where his wife gave birth to their first child, Catharina Dorothea (1708-74). Two years later, they welcomed a son, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-84), who inherited his father’s talent. Unfortunately, Wilhelm earned very little for his future compositions and died in poverty. In 1713, Maria gave birth to twins Johann Christoph and Maria Sophia. Unfortunately, Johann died on the same day, and Maria passed away twenty days later.

Whilst in Weimar, Bach worked as an organist and composed many keyboard and orchestral works. Bach later compiled many of his preludes and fugues from this time to form The Well-Tempered Clavier. Each piece in the collection is in a different key, totalling 24 key signatures: C major, C minor, C sharp major and so on. The outcome remains one of the most important works in the history of classical music. Bach also studied Italian composers and transcribed some of Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) works for the organ and harpsichord.

In 1714, Bach welcomed another son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-88), who almost surpassed Bach’s musical legacy. Haydn (1732-1809), Beethoven and Mozart admired his work greatly, particularly the latter who said, “Bach is the father, we are the children.” The same year as Carl’s birth, J.S. Bach became the Konzertmeister (director of music) at the ducal court in Weimar. His boss, Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar (1696-1715), required Bach to compose one cantata each month for the court chapel service. Bach also transcribed many of Prince Johann Ernst’s violin concertos for the harpsichord and organ.

Bach’s sixth child, Johann Gottfried Bernhard (1715-39), was born in 1715, the same year that Prince Johann Ernst passed away. Bach continued working as Konzertmeister but soon fell out of favour with the musicians and choir under his command. In 1717, his employers tried to dismiss Bach from his position. After stubbornly refusing to leave, Bach found himself arrested and confined to the County Judge’s place of detention for a month. On his release, he begrudgingly accepted his discharge.

Despite Bach’s unfavourable dismissal, Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen (1694-1728) hired Bach as Kapellmeister. Prince Leopold had an ear for music and recognised Bach’s talents. Unlike his previous employer, Bach had a good relationship with the prince and made him the godfather of Leopold Augustus (1718-19), who sadly died in infancy. The prince paid Bach well but disapproved of elaborate organ music in churches. As a result, most of Bach’s compositions from his time in Köthen had a secular nature. Nonetheless, Bach respected his employer’s taste, saying, “He was a gracious Prince, who both loved and knew music.”

As Kapellmeister, Bach frequently joined the prince on his travels. In 1720, while away in Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic), Bach’s wife unexpectedly died. Bach described her untimely death as the worst event in his life. Fortunately, he found love again the following year with the soprano singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke (1701-60). She also worked for the prince, and the couple married on 3rd December 1721. Anna instantly took up the role of stepmother and raised Bach’s children as though her own.

Die Leipziger Thomaskirche 1749

In 1723, Bach accepted the position of Thomaskantor (Cantor at St. Thomas). This involved moving to Leipzig to direct the Thomanerchor, a choir of boys aged 9 to 18 who attended St Thomas boarding school. Bach’s employer also expected him to teach Latin but allowed the composer to appoint others for this task. Bach was also expected to compose cantatas for Sunday services, of which he produced more than 300. The majority of the cantatas reflected the Gospel readings in the weekly lectionary.

During his first six years in Leipzig, Bach fathered six children. Due to the lack of medical care, many of Bach’s children did not survive infancy. Christiana Sophia Henrietta (1723-26), for example, died at the age of three, Christian Gottlieb (1725-28) at two, Regina Johanna (1728-33) at five, and Ernestus Andreas (1727-27) shortly after his birth. Two of the six children lived to adulthood. Gottfried Heinrich (1724-63) learned to play the keyboard well and showed the potential of “a great genius, which however failed to develop”. Writings of the time suggest Gottfried had a mental handicap of some sort and relied on his sister, Elisabeth “Liesgen” Juliana Friederica (1726-81), for all his adult life. Liesgen married one of her father’s pupils, Johann Christoph Altnickol (1720-59), who worked as an organist, composer and teacher.

In March 1729, Bach took over as director of the Collegium Musicum, a musical society that specialised in secular performances. The position, which he held for ten years, allowed Bach to broaden his repertoire, which, until then, was constricted to liturgical compositions. The extra work did not prevent Bach from his Thomaskantor duties because of Bach’s proactiveness in producing six years worth of cantatas during his first three years in Leipzig. He also continued to grow his large family, although the child mortality rate remained high. Three babies born in the 1730s did not reach childhood: Christiana Benedicta (1730-30), Christiana Dorothea (1731-32) and Johann August Abraham (1733-33).

In 1732, Bach welcomed a son who managed to survive childhood and follow in his musical footsteps. Johann Christoph Friedrich (1732-95), known as the ‘Bückeburg’ Bach to differentiate him from his father, became a concertmaster in Bückeburg, where he was also a renowned harpsichord player. The Bückeburg Bach composed hundreds of pieces for the keyboard, as well as chamber music, choral work and symphonies. Unfortunately, a lot of J.C.F. Bach’s manuscripts were destroyed during the Second World War.

Johann Christian Bach – Thomas Gainsborough

Another of Bach’s sons earned the epithet “The London Bach” because he established his reputation in England as the music master to Queen Charlotte (1744-1818). J.S. Bach was already 50 years old at Johann Christian’s (1735-82) birth and did not live to witness his son’s success. Nonetheless, J.C. Bach’s talent emerged from a young age, and his father spent a few years teaching him how to play the keyboard. Later in life, J.C. tutored the 8-year-old Mozart in composition, who often credited the “London Bach” for his success. On hearing of J.C. Bach’s death in 1782, Mozart lamented, “What a loss to the musical world!”

In 1736, J.S. Bach received the title of “Royal Court Composer” from Augustus III of Poland (1696-1763), the Elector of Saxony. At this time, Bach was working on his first publication of German Organ Mass, which he eventually published in 1739. The collection includes a triple fugue in E flat major, which is understood to represent the Trinity. “The first fugue is calm and majestic, with an absolutely uniform movement throughout; in the second the theme seems to be disguised, and is only occasionally recognisable in its true shape, as if to suggest the divine assumption of an earthly form; in the third, it is transformed into rushing semiquavers as if the Pentacostal wind were coming roaring from heaven.” (Albert Schweitzer, 1905)

Following the birth of his final two children, Johanna Carolina (1737-81) and Regina Susanna (1742-1809), Bach’s music style shifted. He adopted stile antico from the 16th century and combined it with the music of his contemporaries, for instance, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Handel and Bach were born in the same year, yet they never met. Bach attempted to visit Handel in 1719, but he had moved to London. Bach incorporated several of Handel’s arias into his version of the St Mark Passion, composed in 1747.

In mid-1747, Bach visited King Frederick II of Prussia (1712-86) in Potsdam, who introduced Bach to the fortepiano. This new instrument was an early version of the piano built by Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753). Bach had come across Silbermann’s earlier constructions and criticised them heavily. Yet, the fortepiano impressed Bach and inspired him to write a collection of keyboard canons and fugues, which he published under the title The Musical Offering. Many musicologists consider this work one of the first piano compositions in history.

Although Bach continued to compose, often returning to and adapting older works, his eyesight rapidly deteriorated. He stubbornly refused to step down as Thomaskantor, but his employer made arrangements to hire another composer to start working “upon the eventual … decease of Mr Bach”. By 1750, Bach was almost completely blind due to cataracts and underwent eye surgery by the British eye surgeon John Taylor (1703-72). Unfortunately, Taylor was a charlatan and permanently blinded Bach as a result. He also blinded the composer Handel and up to 100 other victims. Sadly, Bach passed away on 28th July 1750 from complications due to the unsuccessful operation.

Not much is known about Bach’s funeral other than he was buried in an unmarked grave at Old St. John’s Cemetery in Leipzig. Yet, he did not die a poor man. An inventory drawn up at the time claims Bach owned five harpsichords, two lute-harpsichords, three violins, three violas, two cellos, a viola da gamba, a lute and a spinet. Whilst his funeral remains a mystery, Bach’s life is recorded in detail in a Nekrolog (obituary) written by his son Carl and one of his students, Johann Friedrich Agricola (1720-74).

Image of the Bach memorial erected by Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig in 1843

During his lifetime, Bach was highly regarded amongst his colleagues. Yet, those outside his social circle were not so familiar with his compositions. As a result, only a limited number of people played Bach’s music. It is thanks to Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47), who conducted a famous performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on 11th March 1829, that Bach is popular today. Mendelssohn later erected a monument to the composer in Leipzig. Also credited with reviving Bach’s compositions is Bristol-born Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), the son of the famous hymnodist Charles Wesley (1707-88). At the beginning of the 19th century, Wesley, sometimes known as “the English Mozart”, occasionally performed some of Bach’s organ pieces in London concerts.

In 1850, the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was founded by Moritz Hauptmann (1792-1868), a cantor of the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, to promote Bach’s music. Around that time, musicians referred to Bach as one of the Three Bs, a term coined in the Berliner Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung to represent Bach, Beethoven and Hector Berlioz (1803-69). Later, a German conductor replaced Berlioz with Johannes Brahms (1833-97), saying “I believe in Bach, the Father, Beethoven, the Son, and Brahms, the Holy Ghost of music.” (Hans von Bülow, 1880) Since then, the English composer David Matthews (b.1943) has proposed adding Benjamin Britten (1913-76) to the legacy, making them the Four Bs.

Bach’s popularity continued to rise during the 20th century with the appearance of several organisations and awards in his name. Choirs and orchestras, including the Bach Aria Group, Deutsche Bachsolisten, Bachchor Stuttgart, and Bach Collegium Japan, have developed and performed various Bach Festivals around the world. Every two years, the Bach-Archiv Leipzig holds the Internationaler Bach Wettbewerb Leipzig (International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition); and the Royal Academy of Music in London awards the Royal Academy of Music Bach Prize to “an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the performance and/or scholarly study of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.”

So, why is Bach the nation’s favourite composer? Admittedly, it is a matter of personal taste, but Bach may come out on top due to his versatile style of compositions. Whilst Bach usually wrote for organ and other keyboard instruments, he also produced concertos for the violin and music for orchestras. Bach composed hundreds of religious works, making him popular in churches, but he also wrote secular music, which is enjoyed by people of all faiths and none. Bach wrote something for everyone, and it is this, alongside his expertise, that earns him the title “The Greatest Composer of All Time”.

Some of the compositions mentioned in this blog are available on YouTube through the following links:
Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)
The Well Tempered Clavier: Book I: Prelude and Fugue No.1 in C Major (BWV846)
German Organ Mass : Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV683a)
Prelude in E-flat Major (BWV 552/i) – Representing the Trinity
Six-voice ricercar from The Musical Offering (BWV 1079)
Opening to St. Matthew Passion (BMW 244)


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The African Mahler

Many have heard of the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), but how many people know Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the English composer and conductor? Known in America as the “African Mahler”, Coleridge overcame the constraints of his race to succeed in his career as a classical composer and musician. African people considered Coleridge-Taylor a beacon of hope for the future and continue to remember him as an iconic figure of Black British history.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor was born on 15th August 1875, the son of a white British woman and an African-American man from Sierra Leone. His father, Dr Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, met his mother, Alice Hare Martin (1856-1953), whilst studying medicine at King’s College London. After a short relationship, Taylor returned to Africa, unaware that Alice was pregnant. Alice, who lived with her father and step-mother in Croydon, South London, named her son after her favourite poet, although she preferred to call him Coleridge.

Coleridge’s grandfather, Benjamin Holmans, worked as a farrier, but also taught the violin. After his fifth birthday, his grandfather began giving Coleridge violin lessons and, after noticing the young boy’s talent, insisted he receive professional training. Coleridge also enjoyed singing and joined the local church choir.

In 1887, Alice Martin married a railway worker called George Evans and moved out of her father’s home. Although he no longer lived with his grandfather, Coleridge’s maternal family encouraged him to continue his music studies and arranged for him to attend the Royal College of Music. At only 15 years old, Coleridge began studying under the composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), one of the founding professors of the college. For his degree, Coleridge opted to focus on composition rather than the violin and, after graduating, began teaching at the Crystal Palace School of Music. He also worked as a professional musician and became the conductor of the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire. Due to a printing error in which a hyphen was added to his name, people came to know him as “Samuel Coleridge-Taylor”, which he kept as his professional name.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor c. 1893

In 1893, Coleridge-Taylor published his first composition, Piano Quintet in G minor. Following this success, he produced nonets, suites and symphonies for a variety of instruments. In 1896, his growing reputation caught the attention of English composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Noticing the young man’s talent, Elgar recommended Coleridge-Taylor to the annual Three Choirs Festival, one of the oldest classical choral music festivals in the world. Dating back to 1715, the festival was instrumental to the careers of some of the most famous composers in history, including Handel, Mozart and Beethoven.

After Coleridge-Taylor premiered at the Three Choirs Festival with Ballade in A minor, Elgar introduced him to August Jaeger (1860-1909), an Anglo-German music publisher. Impressed, Jaeger called Coleridge-Taylor “a genius” and offered to guide the young man in his professional career. With the help of this influential editor, Coleridge-Taylor produced one of his most successful series of works, The Song of Hiawatha.

Written between 1898 and 1900, Coleridge-Taylor based the trilogy upon his favourite poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82). The Song of Hiawatha relates the fictional adventures of a Native American called Hiawatha and his love for Minnehaha, whose life comes to a tragic end. The first part, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898), consists of nine sections for orchestra and voice. The premiere, conducted by Charles Villiers Stanford, took place on 11th November 1898 at the Royal College of Music and was attended by many famous names.

Before the performance, the English composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) wrote to Coleridge-Taylor, “I’m always an ill man now, my boy, but I’m coming to hear your music tonight even if I have to be carried.” He later mentioned in his diary, “Much impressed by the lad’s genius. He is a composer, not a music-maker. The music is fresh and original – he has melody and harmony in abundance, and his scoring is brilliant and full of colour – at times luscious, rich and sensual. The work was very well done.” Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918), a contemporary of Elgar, also praised Coleridge-Taylor and described the performance as “one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history.”

Initially, Coleridge-Taylor did not plan to compose a trilogy, but the success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast earned him the commission for a sequel. The first part rivalled Handel’s Messiah in popularity, but the second part, The Death of Minnehaha (1899), did not receive as much praise. The third part, Hiawatha’s Departure, which premiered in 1900, received the least admiration due to Elgar and Jaeger’s open criticism.

Christmas greeting card displaying the Coleridge-Taylor family, 1912

In 1899, Coleridge-Taylor married Jessie Walmisley, who he met while studying at the Royal College of Music. Her parents tried to prevent the marriage because they did not want a man of mixed-race to marry their white daughter, but they soon relented, most likely on account of Coleridge-Taylor’s musical success. In 1900, Coleridge-Taylor and Jessie welcomed a son named Hiawatha (1900-80) after the protagonist of Longfellow’s poem. Three years later, Jessie gave birth to a daughter, Gwendolen Avril (1903-98). Both followed in their father’s footsteps to have careers in music.

Invitation to the Pan-African Conference at Westminster Town Hall, London, 23–25 July 1900

The success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast earned Coleridge-Taylor the opportunity to tour three times in the United States of America. He also participated in the 1900 First Pan-African Conference, of which he was the youngest delegate. Organized by Trinidadian lawyer Henry Sylvester Williams (1867-1911), the conference took place at Westminster Town Hall (now Caxton Hall) between the 23rd and 25th July. According to the chair, Bishop Alexander Walters (1858-1917), it was “the first time in history black people had gathered from all parts of the globe to discuss and improve the condition of their race, to assert their rights and organize so that they might take an equal place among nations.”

The conference aimed to improve the treatment of Africans in Britain and the British Empire but also attracted many American attendees. Coleridge-Taylor became acquainted with the civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1963) and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), who inspired the young composer. Working together, the 37 delegates penned a petition to Queen Victoria (1819-1901) to look into the treatment of African people, particularly in South Africa and Rhodesia, where they faced segregation, could not vote and had difficulty purchasing properties. The Queen responded positively towards the cause but passed away not long after.

In 1904, on a tour of the USA, Coleridge-Taylor met President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) at the White House. Whilst Roosevelt invited Coleridge as a result of the success of his music, African-Americans also viewed this as an achievement. At that time, black people very rarely received invites to meet the President. Encouraged by this, the American civil rights movement adopted The Song of Hiawatha as their “battle song”. Coleridge-Taylor also met with Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), who despite his skin colour, often advised the President on racial matters. Coleridge-Taylor shared his experiences of racial abuse with Washington and other members of the Black community, which inspired him to demonstrate his African heritage through his music.

In England, Coleridge-Taylor collaborated with Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poems represented the lives of African Americans. Coleridge-Taylor set many of Dunbar’s works to music, which they performed in London at a joint recital under the patronage of John Hay (1838-1905), the US Secretary of State. Encouraged by the praise and support he gained from black people, Coleridge-Taylor endeavoured to integrate African music and themes into his compositions. In doing this, Coleridge-Taylor said, “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk-music, Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro Melodies.”

As well as introducing African culture to classical music, Coleridge-Taylor based some of his compositions on historical events, for instance, his concert overture Toussaint L’Ouverture (1901). François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) was a prominent leader of the Haitian Revolution. Born a slave in the French colony, then known as Saint-Domingue, Louverture rebelled against the government and led a successful revolutionary movement, earning him the epithet “Father of Haiti”. Unfortunately, Coleridge-Taylor’s overture did not prove as successful as The Song of Hiawatha. Whereas the BBC Proms have performed the latter over 60 times, Toussaint L’Ouverture only appeared at the music festival once in 1919.

In 1902, Coleridge-Taylor composed the march Ethiopia Saluting the Colours to commemorate the Ethiopian victory over Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. The outcome secured Ethiopia’s independence and made the country a symbol of Pan-Africanism. A few years later, Coleridge-Taylor composed Twenty-Four Negro Melodies (1905), which also celebrated Pan-Africanism. Coleridge-Taylor based the melodies on 24 tunes sung by slaves across Southeast Africa, South Africa, West Africa, the West Indies, and America. Slaves sang while labouring in the fields or in the evenings to express their pain and weariness. The songs also spoke of hope for the future and encouraged all slaves in the vicinity by letting them know they were not alone in their plight. In concert, the orchestra tended to play all Twenty-Four Negro Melodies in one sitting, but each piece differs in sound and style. Many Thousands Gone, for example, was based on a Negro spiritual, whereas Deep River sounded like a church-hymn and Warriors’ Song like a battle cry.

Coleridge-Taylor’s third tour of the USA took place in 1910 when he performed at the Litchfield Festival in May 1910. He also conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which at the time was directed by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Initially, the musicians expressed concern about having a black conductor, but only one person refused to play. The success of the concert earned Coleridge-Taylor the sobriquet “African Mahler”.

When in England, Coleridge-Taylor worked at the Trinity College of Music and Guildhall School of Music in London. Many described him as a shy person but an effective conductor, particularly for the Rochester Choral Society and the Handel Society. He often received invitations to judge music competitions around Britain, although he still faced racist abuse due to his mixed heritage.

Despite the racist judgements, Coleridge-Taylor’s works were undeniably successful, and he became an inspiration to a new generation of musicians. Unfortunately, composers earned very little, often selling their compositions outright when low on funds. Coleridge-Taylor sold his most successful work Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, for a mere 15 guineas. The publishers, on the other hand, sold many copies of the music, thus reaping all the royalties. Although Coleridge-Taylor learned from this mistake and insisted on retaining his rights for future compositions, his financial situation remained precarious.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s grave at Bandon Hill Copyright © Peter Hughes

In 1912, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor contracted pneumonia and passed away at the age of 37. Many blame the stress of his finances for his early death. On his gravestone at Bandon Hill Cemetery in Wallington, Surrey, are engraved the words of his friend and poet Alfred Noyes (1880-1958): Too young to die: his great simplicity, his happy courage in an alien world, his gentleness, made all that knew him love him.

Concerned for the welfare of Coleridge-Taylor’s wife and children, King George V (1865-1936) granted Jessie Coleridge-Taylor an annual pension of £100. A memorial concert held at the Royal Albert Hall raised an additional £300 for the family. Although they could not benefit from the sales of the Song of Hiawatha, which soared following the composer’s death, musicians formed the Performing Rights Society in his honour, which campaigned to gain revenue from all performances and publications.

A 1912 obituary in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review

The death of Coleridge-Taylor attracted attention across the world with news reports and obituaries appearing in the African Methodist Episcopal Church ReviewSierra Leone Weekly News and Crystal Palace Reporter, amongst other papers. He was mourned by many, particularly those who considered him a beacon of hope for Black lives as well as those who admired his music. Schools in Kentucky and Maryland were named in his memory, and the 200-voice African-American chorus established in 1901 continued singing under the name of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society. In London, a blue plaque adorns the wall of his childhood home in Dagnall Park, South Norwood, and another where he lived and died in St Leonards Road, Croydon.

Both Coleridge-Taylor’s children followed in his footsteps to attain a career in the music industry. Hiawatha Coleridge-Taylor adapted many of his father’s works for various performances, and his daughter, Gwendolen Avril, became a composer and conductor. Coleridge-Taylor did not live to hear his daughter’s first composition, which she wrote aged twelve. This song, Goodbye Butterfly, won her a scholarship at Trinity College of Music.

Avril Coleridge-Taylor

In 1924, Gwendolen married Harold Dashwood but continued to compose under her maiden name. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last and, after her divorce, she officially dropped her first name and worked professionally as Avril Coleridge-Taylor. In 1933, she made her first debut as a composer at the Royal Albert Hall, followed by becoming the first female conductor of H.M.S. Royal Marines.

During her career, Avril composed many successful songs, orchestral pieces, chamber music and keyboard compositions. Yet, Avril did not have as much success as her father due to her gender. On occasion, this forced her to compose under the pseudonym Peter Riley. Unlike her father, Avril did not experience racial abuse in England, so she was unprepared for the reaction she caused during a tour of South Africa in 1952. South Africa, which was in the grips of apartheid, treated Avril as a white woman until they learned of her one-quarter black ancestry. Immediately, the government banned her from composing and conducting in the country. From then on, Avril supported the efforts of Black African movements and composed the Ceremonial March to celebrate Ghana’s independence in 1957.

History books record little else about Avril’s career other than she wrote a biography of her father in which she recorded her memories. She passed away aged 95 in 1998 at a nursing home in Seaford, Sussex. Until recently, her father, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, was also an unfamiliar name, but the Black Lives Matter movement has unearthed him from the archives. Whilst Coleridge-Taylor is celebrated for his involvement with Pan-Africanism, we ought to remember him for his talent irrespective of his skin colour.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor produced over 80 compositions during his short life, which is more than some composers write during a much longer period. Nicknamed the “African Mahler”, Coleridge-Taylor was well on the way to joining Gustav Mahler amongst the ranks of top composers and conductors. Unfortunately, he died before he could fully realise his potential, but his surviving achievements are evidence of his talent and genius.


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