Skip to main content

Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912) was born in London to a father from Sierra Leone and a mother from England, who raised him as a single parent after the father returned to Africa. Coleridge-Taylor entered the Royal College of Music as a violinist in 1890 and wrote an accomplished Te Deum setting the same year. He composed prolifically, at first producing a stream of chamber music, much of it reminiscent of Brahms, and by the turn of the century completing impressive works for orchestra, chorus, and the stage.

At the age of seventeen he became impassioned by the music of Dvořák, who was immensely popular among British audiences. This motivated Coleridge-Taylor to explore American and African-American music, which Dvořák promoted. In 1898, he composed the cantata Scenes from “The Song of Hiawatha,” portions of which became famous.

Coleridge-Taylor was also an admired conductor, leading the Westmoreland Festival and London’s Handel Society, and he taught composition at Trinity College of Music (London) and the Guildhall School of Music. He encountered many luminaries of African-American culture when they passed through England. The poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was perhaps the most influential; after meeting him in 1896, Coleridge-Taylor began turning out such works as his African Romances (1897), African Suite (1898), and Toussaint l’ouverture (1901, celebrating the Haitian revolutionary). Coleridge-Taylor made three visits to the United States, in 1904, 1906, and 1910. The orchestral musicians of New York complimented his ability on the podium by dubbing him “the Black Mahler.”

He produced a large catalogue of compositions for a composer who lived only two weeks beyond his thirty-seventh birthday, when he was felled by pneumonia. The 1890s was his decade for chamber music; still a student, he wrote in quick succession his Piano Quintet (ca.1893), Nonet (for strings, winds, and piano, ca.1893), Piano Trio (1893), Fantasiestücke for String Quartet (1895), Clarinet Quintet (1895), and String Quartet (1896, but lost). Johannes Brahms was the “grand old man” of chamber music at that time, with his final chamber work being his Clarinet Quintet, composed in 1891 and premiered late that year in Berlin. Coleridge-Taylor promptly composed his own Clarinet Quintet and presented it to his teacher Charles Villiers Stanford, who took it with him on an 1897 trip to Berlin. There Stanford shared it with Brahms’s friend Joseph Joachim (the violinist), who played it privately with colleagues and spoke of it enthusiastically. Brahms’s autumnal Romanticism may cast a slight touch on this work, but stronger influence is derived from Dvořák. In Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet, we spy Dvořákian melodic turns of a folkish bent—the opening themes of the first, second, and fourth movements, for example—and harmonies that can veer modal. We often think of Dvořák as an inspiration for African-American composers at the turn of the twentieth century, but here we are reminded of his similar influence on a remarkable Anglo-African composer.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press.

(September 2019)