Notes by Whitney Slaten, Assistant Professor of Music, Bard College
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor honored his pan-African heritage with ever-mellifluous compositions that increasingly embraced syncopation. African American elites of the Gilded Age cherished him. The chance to be among them was significant, as Coleridge-Taylor’s father was a descendant of enslaved African Americans who fought in the American Revolution. These Black Loyalists fought George Washington’s army in exchange for manumission and land ownership, primarily in Nova Scotia or Sierra Leone. Samuel’s father—Daniel Taylor, born in 1849 in Freetown, Sierra Leone—moved to England, where he became a physician. Samuel’s mother—Alice Marten of Castle Place, Dover—raised him in Croydon, as his father returned to Africa.
In 1890, Coleridge-Taylor matriculated at the Royal College of Music in London, studying composition with Charles Villiers Stanford. Sir Edward Elgar encouraged Coleridge-Taylor, and a friendship with the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar marked a turn in the composer’s life. Dunbar revealed for him the many ways to explore the beauty of his father’s race. Coleridge-Taylor attended the first Pan-African Congress in London in 1900, where he met noteworthy African Americans, including W. E. B. DuBois. In 1904, The Coleridge-Taylor Society invited him to Washington, D.C., to conduct his Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898). There, he met Theodore Roosevelt, and this initiated the first of three tours of the United States. These experiences encouraged him to emphasize musical sounds that would signal regard for his people. Rhythm—too frequently conjuring stereotypes of blackness—was one musical element that Coleridge-Taylor engaged with greater intentionality.
Four Novelettes, Op. 52, for string orchestra, tambourine, and triangle premiered in 1902 at the Croydon Conservatoire. Though Coleridge-Taylor has been called the “Black Mahler,” there are more apt musical analogies. One writer encounters in Four Novelettes a continuation of the “stylistic tradition of [Niels] Gade and Dvořák,” adding that it “excels in a great variety of motifs.” Another hears “touches of Brahms and the blues.” Similarly, one could listen to the dotted rhythms that introduce the first movement and find echoes of Handel, who used them to pronounce the regality in his oratorio Messiah. Coleridge-Taylor may have used them to foreground the mark of older and dignified musical expressions of time and the legacy of a noble people, out of the silence.