More than a century later, the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor plays on

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor


It’s kind of a musical game of names. In November, a group of Chicago Symphony Orchestra members performed Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s String Quartet No. 1 (Calvary) (1956), as part of CSO Sessions, a series of small-ensemble virtual concerts on the CSOtv video portal.

In an installment of CSO Sessions debuting Feb. 11, another group of CSO musicians will perform the Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp Minor, Op. 10, a work written 61 years earlier by Perkinson’s namesake: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. These two composers with overlapping names were from two completely different generations, but they nonetheless have several important characteristics in common. Both were of African descent and racial bias kept them from attaining the recognition and standing they deserved.

Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), who had an English mother and Sierra Leone Creole father, gained considerable respect in England during his short life, including early support from Edward Elgar. In part because of the success of The Song of Hiawatha, a trilogy of cantatas, Coleridge-Taylor made three tours to the United States and was received in 1904 at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented an aria from the first and most famous of the cantatas, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, in 1900 when Coleridge-Taylor was just 25 years old; it was the first music by a Black composer performed by the orchestra.

Perkinson’s mother, who had moved from North Carolina and was working as a piano teacher and church organist in the Bronx, was clearly swept up in the on-going popularity of the British musician, naming her son, born in 1932, after him. Something of a piano prodigy, the young musician soon began demonstrating that his name was no fluke.

From 1998 through his death in 2004, Perkinson worked at Columbia College and the Center for Black Music Research, first serving as coordinator of performance activities and later becoming music director of the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble at the Chicago college.

Johannes Brahms’ esteemed Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115, was written in 1891 for clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, and it is modeled on Mozart’s earlier masterpiece for the instrumental combination. Coleridge-Taylor’s contribution to this form came just four years later.

British composer Charles Stanford, Coleridge-Taylor’s mentor, shared the score for this work with Joseph Joachim, a friend of Brahms and one of the leading violinists of that era, who played it privately with colleagues.

Whether Coleridge-Taylor is the first name or last name on the score, when the Clarinet Quintet begins streaming on Feb. 11 on CSOtv, it means that members of the orchestra will have performed works by both of the classical world’s Coleridge-Taylors in just four months.