Saturday 15 August 2020

'He lives while music lives'

I learned recently that the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is buried in Bandon Hill Cemetery, which is just a couple of miles from my home. As it's his birthday today (born 1875), I thought I'd go and see if I could find his grave.
  Coleridge-Taylor's family background was complex, 'multi-racial' and far from privileged, and he was unmistakably black in appearance. And yet, despite being in a minority of approximately one in the world of classical music, he achieved early and quite dramatic success, gaining a scholarship to the Royal College of Music at the age of 15, studying composition under Stanford and becoming a professional violinist and conductor. Helped and encouraged by (racist imperialist) Edward Elgar, he achieved early success as a composer, and found fame with three hugely popular oratorios based on Longfellow's Hiawatha. Touring America, he was hailed as the 'African Mahler' and received by (racist imperialist) Theodore Roosevelt.
  He died at the age of just 37 at his home in Croydon, having collapsed on West Croydon station (an ignominious fate for anyone). After his death, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast became as popular as Handel's Messiah or Mendelssohn's Elijah. The sheet music was on everyone's piano, and between 1928 and 1939 Malcolm Sargent conducted ten sold-out seasons of a spectacular staging of Hiawatha, involving hundreds of choristers, at the Royal Albert Hall. Sadly, neither Coleridge-Taylor nor his family received any royalties from Hiawatha, as the composer had sold the rights for a one-off payment.
  So, to Bandon Hill I went, hoping that perhaps there would be a plan of the cemetery, or even a discreet sign, to help me to find Coleridge-Taylor's grave – but no such luck. After paying a visit to the grave of my old English master (who's been mentioned here before, and in my book*), I wandered at large among the ranks of headstones and sculpted angels, finding no sign of Coleridge-Taylor, for twenty minutes and more, until I finally happened on it. 'Erected by his wife and other lovers of the man and his music', it is quite good of its kind, with the tree behind the conventional angel perhaps hinting at the composer's exotic heritage. Some of the lettering is becoming hard to make out; a little light restoration would be no bad thing.
 'He lives while music lives. Too young to die – his great simplicity, His happy courage in an alien world, His gentleness, Made all that know him love him,' declares the epitaph.
It continues:
'Sleep, crowned with fame, fearless of change or time.
Sleep, like remembered music in the soul,
Silent, immortal: while our discords climb
To that great chord which shall resolve the whole.
Silent, with Mozart, on that solemn shore:
Secure, where neither waves nor hearts can break.
Sleep, till the master of the world once more
Touch the remembered strings, and bid thee wake,
Touch the remembered strings, and bid thee wake.'

This heartfelt epitaph is by (racist imperialist) Alfred Noyes, who also wrote another impassioned farewell to the composer.
  Under the epitaph are carved four bars from Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha, setting the words 'Thus departed Hiawatha, Hiawatha the beloved.'

* The Mother of Beauty: On the Golden Age of English Church Monuments, and Other Matters of Life and Death, available on Amazon or from the author.


  1. Alfred Noyes...thats a name you dont hear very often

  2. Yes, he could hardly be more out of fashion – but The Highwayman is still read and enjoyed, I believe...