In the foreword to the 1969 edition of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Musician, His Life and Letters, Blydon Jackson writes:
“American Negroes who were born in the earlier years of this century grew up in black communities where the name of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was as well known then as now are such names as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.... Gentle as he was in manner, refined as was his calling, he was still a fierce apostle of human liberty and a crusader for the rights of man. He was a parable for the black consciousness of our present time.”
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was born a suburb of London. His father was a native of Sierra Leone, and his mother was English. As a child Coleridge-Taylor studied violin and sang in the choir of St. George's Church, Croydon. At the age of fifteen he was admitted by Sir George Grove to the Royal College of Music as a violin student. While at the Royal College his interest in composition grew. He ended up studying composition with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.
Some of Coleridge-Taylor's greatest works date from these early years. His most famous work is Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, which was based upon the poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. During Coleridge-Taylor's lifetime it had a popularity in England equaled only by Handel's Messiah.
In the United States, his work inspired the establishment of the Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, which sponsored his first visit to the United States. An introduction to Coleridge-Taylor's Twenty-four Negro Melodies was written by Booker T. Washington. Coleridge-Taylor was received at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt, an extraordinary event for a person of color at that time.
Coleridge-Taylor sought to draw from traditional African music and integrate it into the classical tradition, which he considered Johannes Brahms to have done with Hungarian music and Antonín Dvořák with Bohemian music. He wrote for orchestra, chorus, chamber music, instrumental solos and concerti; the parts for his violin concerto (written for Maud Powell) were lost on the transatlantic voyage and had to be re-written. He also wrote an opera, lost for years and said to have been destroyed, but recently unearthed in the British Library. He died of pneumonia at the young age of 37.