Today we’re here to talk about the wonderful Samuel Coleridge Taylor, a figure who has become a staple of the classical music world.
When bringing together the RSL Classical Piano syllabus, we absolutely knew that our collection wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of this man. And the piece we chose? Phew! Get your thinking caps on and limber up because it’s certainly not an easy one.
But before we get around to that, let’s take a little dive into the life of Samuel Coleridge Taylor.
Identity and Heritage
It goes without saying that his cultural identity was a huge part of his life and work. His mother, Alice, met his father, Daniel, who had come from Sierra Leone to study medicine in London. Sadly, Daniel had decided to return to Sierra Leone before he even knew that Alice was pregnant. Taylor would later find out that his father was descended from African American slaves who had been liberated and settled in Nova Scotia, before leaving that hostile society and heading to Sierra Leone. Taylor was fascinated by his racial heritage and this would lead him to America later in life to find out more.
Samuel was thus raised by his mother and her family in Croydon, where his grandfather would introduce him to the violin. He paid for all of Samuel’s music lessons which eventually would take him all the way to the Royal College of Music to study composition!
And being the talented individual that he was, it wasn’t long until Taylor started to receive great recognition for his work. The famous Edward Elgar helped by recommending Taylor to the Three Choirs Festival where his “Ballade in A Minor” was first played!
His increased fame, status and involvement in civil rights work led him to participate in the 1900 First Pan-African Conference in London, where he would meet figures such as scholar and activist W.E.B Du Bois, and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar whom he would collaborate with extensively.
But it’s about time that we talk about his most famous work and perhaps the composition that we are all most familiar with. “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” is a piece for chorus and orchestra. This piece set Taylor off on three tours of the United States, making his name well known across the Atlantic. On his first trip across the pond, Taylor was even welcomed by President Roosevelt at the White House!
Sadly, it was difficult to make money as a composer at this time, and in order to make some immediate cash, Taylor sold the rights to “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” to a publisher. The company would go on to make loads of money from this work, but Taylor wasn’t entitled to a penny of the royalties. On the plus side, much later after his death, his case would contribute to the formation of the Performing Rights Society who fought to get revenue for musicians through performance too. What a legacy!
RSL Classical and Coleridge Taylor
So, going back to our terrific Taylor piece in the RSL Classical Piano syllabus, you will find “Cameo No.3” in the Grade 8 line-up. Taken from his Three Cameos for Piano, the steady tempo and apparent simplicity of the rhythmic patterns are deceiving for how difficult this piece can be to play. There are some real technical challenges lying below the surface here, and in order for this beautiful piece to sound effortless and relaxed, you’ll need some serious control in those right-hand chords. The range of this piece is also pretty huge - some sections will have you feeling as though you’re grabbing the piano from each end! However, despite the more ambitious technique, this piece is still incredibly tuneful and has that classic Taylor sound.
Samuel Coleridge Taylor joins a whole line up of sensational composers in the Grade 8 syllabus, so we’d recommend having a read about them too! We’ve got Johann Sebastian Bach, Clara Schumann, Bill Evans and Scott Joplin to get you started!