Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s name is a play on that of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, perhaps pointing to his mother’s artistic ambitions for her son. His father was Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, a Sierra Leonean physician who studied in London but returned to West Africa before Samuel was born. His mother, Alice Hare Martin, was a white Englishwoman, and unmarried. It must not have been easy for Coleridge-Taylor to grow up in working-class Victorian London as a mixed-race child of illegitimate birth, but he was eventually adopted by his mother’s husband, received violin lessons, and earned a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1890.
By age 16, Coleridge-Taylor was already composing, and soon joined the studio of Charles Villiers Stanford, where his fellow students included Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. He won a few prizes and obtained his first commission on the recommendation of Edward Elgar. He became interested in the United States, and some of his best-known pieces, such as Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, were based on American themes. He visited the US three times, meeting President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House and touring with Harry Burleigh, the African-American singer and composer who had worked with Antonín Dvořák in New York.
For a moment around the turn of the 20th century, Coleridge-Taylor was one of England’s best-known composers, with no shortage of performances, conducting appearances, teaching posts, and publications. But he died unexpectedly from pneumonia at age 37, and his music apart from the cantata Hiawatha was mostly forgotten.
The Clarinet Quintet
The Clarinet Quintet, Op. 10, is one of his first mature pieces, dating from 1895, and it was published by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig in 1906. He wrote it in response to a challenge from Stanford, who remarked that it would be impossible to write a clarinet quintet without being influenced by Johannes Brahms. (Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, which appeared in 1891, was the most significant contribution to the genre since Mozart.)
Coleridge-Taylor instead took a detour by way of Dvořák, adopting a folksy verve. His quintet is geographically unplaceable—vaguely English, Bohemian, and American all the same—but delightfully unique, avoiding any Brahmsian nostalgia. “You’ve done it, my boy!” Stanford exclaimed.
The first movement is bold and breezy, with surprising punctuations and colorful shadings between the clarinet and strings. The second movement stretches out from a restful melody, drawing a pastoral scene. The Scherzo is in two time signatures at once—3/4 and 9/8—resulting in unpredictable cross-rhythms in a playful romp. The finale lays on the ostinatos, with little drumming figures in cello plucks and chug-chug-chugs in the inner strings. A climax and dramatic pause gives way to a murky moment of stasis—resolved by a Vivace coda.