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What's in a name? This composer created poetry in motion

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a familiar name to anyone with a passing interest in poetry. A friend of William Wordsworth, he was one of the English Romantics, best remembered for his Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, on the other hand, was a composer, neglected nowadays, but in his time 100 years ago, well received and highly regarded. Coleridge was his middle name, for the poet was popular in the family; the hyphen came later.

He was born in London, the mixed-race son of an English woman and a doctor from Sierra Leone, which made for a difficult start in Victorian Britain. Things weren't made any easier when his father, unable to get work, headed back to West Africa, a victim of prejudice, by all accounts.

It became obvious that Samuel was musical, and his mother encouraged this. She enrolled him in the Royal College of Music, where his professor was none other than the noted composer and conductor from Dublin, Charles Villiers Stanford.

Samuel set the poet Coleridge's Kubla Khan to music but it was his take on some other verse that would be the making of him. Longfellow's Hiawatha inspired a cantata that propelled him into the spotlight. The word got out that Hiawatha's Wedding Feast was something special. It was so good, it would premiere at a college concert alongside music by Rossini and Beethoven. Stanford himself would conduct.

The event was a huge success, and the piece and its composer were soon in great demand. He was commissioned to write a follow-up; there'd be three cantatas in all.

Sadly, in the midst of the excitement, he'd been prevailed upon to take a one-off fee for the music, with no commission on future sales. Coleridge-Taylor could only look on as the revenues stacked up and his publisher made a mint.

This put him under immense pressure. With just a small annual retainer to rely on and four young children to feed, he was forced into a frenzy of work that eventually took its toll, and he died early of pneumonia.

The establishment was spurred into action. His predicament was an influential factor in the formation of the Performing Right Society that still makes sure that composers' copyright is translated into cash. The UK government acknowledged the financial difficulties his widow was facing by awarding her a pension.

His music drew the crowds, both at home and in the US. For over a decade, there would be a 'Hiawatha Fortnight', when Malcolm Sargent would put on a two-week show at the Royal Albert Hall, showcasing the Longfellow trilogy. But the music is rarely heard these days.

This is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's centenary. He died on September 1, 1912, not long after his 37th birthday.

RTÉ lyric fm features The Hamilton Scores from 9.30 each Saturday morning, and George Hamilton's Full Score on Sundays at 3.00pm.

ghamilton@independent.ie

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