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Tuesday 15 December 2009

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - Life and Music

Guest Blog by Charles Kaufmann, specialist of the life and music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (15 August 1875 – 1 September 1912) is the person who set ‘Kubla Kahn’ to music. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the poem.

I’m looking at five photos from the 1905 photo album of J. Rosamond ‘Rosie’ Johnson. One shows a woman and two children standing in front of a brick wall on a bright day; behind them, a row of brick houses like those found throughout the London conurbation. The girl, Gwendolen, is two. She has a tousled head of golden curls. Holding her is a white woman wearing a bonnet out of which four bird feathers jut as if a wayward pigeon has just flown into its cote. A veil extends from the bonnet over the woman’s face, obscuring her features. This is Jessie Walmisley Coleridge-Taylor. She smiles down at her daughter, who is upset. Apparently, Gwendolen wants someone else to hold her. Standing to the left is Hiawatha, furrowing his brows; he holds a hand up to his face, and is about to cry.

These children want to be with their father, who is standing just out of range. In the next snapshot, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor has positioned himself next to Gwendolen. His head is slightly down-turned. He squints up into the camera, brow as furrowed as his son’s, hands buried in the pockets of his coat. Still on her mother’s arm, Gwendolen is distracted by something in her father’s pocket, about to reach in for whatever it is. Through her veil, Jessie looks seductively into the camera.

The location is outside the Coleridge-Taylor home, 10 Upper Grove, South Norwood, London. One of three people is taking the photos: Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson, or James Weldon Johnson, part of the New York Vaudeville team Cole and Johnson. On this day, they were paying homage to the man whose creative success in England, and increasingly in the USA, inspired hope.

The veil is what I find interesting—a gift from the trio of visitors? It seems to affirm Jessie Coleridge-Taylor’s solidarity with the early 20th-century plight of African-Americans in terms of what WEB Dubois called “the color line.” Two years previous, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor had been invited to conduct the all-black Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society of Washington, D. C., in a performance of ‘Hiawatha,’ baritone Henry T. Burleigh in title role.

Cole, the Johnsons, Burleigh—these noted African-American artists were four of many seeking contact with Coleridge-Taylor. The list is a Who’s-Who: Paul Laurence Dunbar, WEB Dubois, Booker T. Washington. In Coleridge-Taylor, they saw proof that achievement was not “for whites only.”

“England, thank God, is slightly more civilized than her colonies,” Dubois would later write in ‘Immortal Child,’ his tribute to Coleridge-Taylor, “but even there…the path was no way of roses.”

Jessie Coleridge-Taylor had been worried about the trip to Washington. “We are now talking…of the official invitation he has just received…to visit Washington!” she had written, June 15, 1903, to Mamie Hilyer, who with her husband, Andrew F. Hilyer, had helped found S. C. T. C. S. “Of course I would not hinder him from doing that which would give you all so much pleasure, and would be of so great benefit to the Race, but…I do beg of you…to take care of him and try and spare him the racial prejudice which I know is so bitter in the South. Some, if not all, our colored friends here wish to prevent him from taking this proposed visit. I can but wish for the best (the unexpected?)….”

Andrew Hilyer believed that S. C. T. C. S. would help with his goal of muting “the resistance which has been in our path all the time.” In 1908, after several successful seasons, he would write to Coleridge-Taylor, “When we are going to have a Hiawatha concert here for at least one month, we seem…lifted above the clouds of American color prejudice, and to live there wholly oblivious to its disadvantages.”

In ‘The Souls of Black Folk,’ (1903) Dubois had written of “two worlds within and without the Veil.” Hilyer had sent the book to Coleridge-Taylor, who read it and admired it. The preface to James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel, ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,’ states: “In these pages it is as though a veil had been drawn aside.”

I examine three other pictures. James Weldon Johnson has taken the first. It shows the small frame of Coleridge-Taylor, with his familiar sombrero and cane, between the taller figure of J. Rosamond Johnson and slim, towering Bob Cole, both dressed in long overcoats and bowler hats. In the other photos, taken by Cole, Coleridge-Taylor stands between J. Rosamond and James. All three appear self-possessed, cocksure. Six years later, Cole would commit suicide: “Negro Song Writer Drowns Himself in Creek in Friends’ Presence” would be the New York Times headline.

On August 29, 1912, 9-year-old Gwendolen would hear her father call her name, “Gwennie, Gwennie!” She would find him “lying on the bed, sobbing like a child.” Several days later, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor would be dead, apparently of double pneumonia, at the age of 37, on the threshold of breakthroughs in America and Europe—and within himself. Two weeks before, Maud Powell will have presented the American premiere of his violin concerto at Norfolk, Connecticut.

To read more about Coleridge-Taylor click here.

Photos copyright K. Melanie Edwards, the John Rosamond Johnson Papers,
Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Yale University. Used with kind permission.

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