Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: What’s in a Name?

Last night I was half-dozing while listening to our cable light classical music channel. It was the usual lineup of 200-year-old white males of the 3-B variety—Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. You see a photo or artist’s rendition of a guy in a powered wig, often looking depressed or constipated, alongside of short biographical blurbs. Many of the blurbs I mentally correct for grammatical or spelling errors.

Suddenly, I was struck by what I thought was a mistake in the name of the artist—next to a photo of a Black man. The name was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Even now I initially started to type Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which also didn’t make sense, because he was not a composer. He was a famous 19th century poet who wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, and other works I learned from my English Literature professor, Dr. Jenny Lind Porter (that was her real name; no mix up with the Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind).

I learned a lot from Dr. Porter, although I didn’t learn anything about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who was a famous 19th century composer in England. He happened to have been of mixed racial parentage, like I was. His mother (Alice Hare Martin) was white and his father was black—exactly my situation. His father (Dr. Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor) didn’t know about Samuel and they never met. I knew my father—and probably picked up some of his bad habits. Alice gave Samuel the name Coleridge because she was a fan of the poet. My name is Jim, but people often call me John, which was my father’s name.

How I got confused was a simple mental transposition of the last names. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a white man who was hooked on laudanum and wrote great poetry. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a mulatto who was not hooked on laudanum and wrote great music.

I had never seen any composers of African American descent on the cable music Light Classical channel—and we’ve been cable subscribers for many years. I have to wonder whether I just have not been paying attention or whether this is a recent phenomenon and a sign of the times.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and his wife, Jessie Walmisley (a white woman), had two children. They named his son Hiawatha, after the native American in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, The Song of Hiawatha. It turns out Hiawatha (also known as Ayenwathaaa or Aiionwatha) was a real guy, an important Native American leader. Longfellow’s poem is actually about the legend of Hiawatha, which is probably not connected in any plausible way to the real life of Ayenwathaaa or Aiionwatha. Some speculate that naming their son Hiawatha might have been related to Hiawatha never knowing who his father was, which Samuel might have identified with.

The Coleridge-Taylors also had a daughter, who they initially named Gwendolyn Avril. Gwendolyn then later changed her name (why not?) to Avril Coleridge-Taylor.

Both Avril and Hiawatha went on to have distinguished careers in music. Avril was a conductor-composer in her own right—which makes me wonder why I’ve not seen any women highlighted on the Light Classical cable music channel.

Samuel was an influential and respected musical, cultural, and political leader. Sadly, he died young, of pneumonia. He was 37 years old.

I hope this helps you feel a bit less confused about all the names in this story. If you’ve got it straight, please drop me a note explaining it—so I can finally get it sorted out.

Sources I used were the Wikipedia entries for Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as well as the Royal College of Music web presentation on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The photo of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is in the public domain, to my understanding.

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