Sunday, January 22, 2012

Black Mahler The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story by Charles Elford

This fascinating book, which deftly toes the line between historical fiction and biography, vividly recounts the true life story of the almost forgotten composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, best remembered for his "Song of Hiawatha" trilogy, which set the famous Longfellow epic poem to music and gave choral societies all over the world a much needed break from religious themed compositions.

Born in 1875 to a white mother and a young black doctor from West Africa, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was adopted by a white Welsh family, the Evans, and grew up in the South London suburb of Croyden. From an early age he showed promise as a musician, his first music teacher fondly recalled discovering the little black boy on the sidewalk outside his house playing marbles with his scruffy little violin case beside him. Victorian England was a much more hospitable climate to African-Americans, though racial prejudices, often rudely expressed, definitely existed there, it was not so bad as America where tolerance didn't equal acceptance or kindness in the decades after the abolution of slavery, and young Samuel was able to receive an excellent education, thanks to encouraging benefactors, and eventually received a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. There he met the woman who would become his wife, the indomitable Jess, and his lifelong best friend William Hurlstone.

While he was still a student, he became entranced by Longfellow's vivid and evocative images of the Native Americans in "the land of the Dakotahs" and decided to set the poem to music for his own pleasure, never realizing it would become a worldwide sensation and the masterpiece he could never surpass. Nor did he realize that selling the piece outright, as he always did with his compositions, would be a catastrophic mistake; while his publishers got rich, all Samuel Coleridge-Taylor earned from his masterpiece was a mere 15 shillings.

For the rest of his life, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor would work himself to death to support his wife and two children, barely managing to keep his head above the water. Despite the mistake with "Hiawatha" he always found it to his best advantage to sell his work outright, but it didn't always pay the bills or stave off debt for very long.

In the more racially tolerant England, he didn't realize how important he was to African-Americans, who hailed him as a hero and inspiration and loved his music, creating a choral society in his name. He visited America three times, always to great acclaim, and even met President Roosevelt.

Ironically, one might consider Samuel Coleridge-Taylor another victim of the Titanic. Though he was not on board the ship, the only copy of his Violin Concerto was. Already worn to a shadow, this stressed and exhausted man worked feverishly around the clock to rewrite this composition and get it to America on time. He met his deadline, but a few months later he collapsed waiting to catch a train and died shortly after. He was only thirty-seven years old.

This is a very readable and engrossing book about a thoroughly likeable man-some might even go so far as to say he was "too nice"-a sensitive, funny, generous, thoughtful, and self-effacing and doubting man who couldn't bear to let anyone down. It is a vivid portrait of a man and artist who should never be forgotten.

For those curious about the title, as I was, it comes from a great compliment paid to the composer during one of his American visits. Gustav Mahler, a conductor from Vienna, was then considered the greatest conductor to have ever visitied America. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was favorably compared to him, deemed by many to be Mahler's only equal, and thus he was dubbed "The Black Mahler."

For more information about the book and its author please visit

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