Sir Lenny Henry, writer, ac­tor and co­me­dian, chooses

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Sir Lenny Henry was talk­ing to Claire Rawles Sir Lenny Henry is a writer, ac­tor and co­me­dian. He co-founded Comic Re­lief and he is chan­cel­lor of Birm­ing­ham City Uni­ver­sity

Sir Lenny Henry chooses Sa­muel Co­leridge-Tay­lor


Sa­muel Co­leridge-Tay­lor was a Bri­tish com­poser and con­duc­tor who wrote a num­ber of ac­claimed pieces of mu­sic. He en­tered the Royal Col­lege of Mu­sic as a teenage vi­o­lin­ist but soon showed great abil­ity in com­po­si­tion. In 1898, he com­posed the can­tata ‘Hi­awatha’s Wed­ding Feast’, which be­came a great suc­cess, and he was in­vited to per­form in the US on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. How­ever, the roy­alty agree­ment he signed for ‘Hi­awatha’ earned him rel­a­tively lit­tle money and his fam­ily were left im­pov­er­ished when he died of pneu­mo­nia aged only 37.

When did you first hear about Sa­muel Co­leridge-Tay­lor?

In the 90s I had a pro­duc­tion com­pany called Cru­cial Films and peo­ple would pitch ideas all of the time. One idea pitched was for a bio­graph­i­cal drama on Sa­muel Co­leridge-Tay­lor and I re­gret it now that it didn’t hap­pen.

What kind of per­son was he?

He was a son of an English woman called Alice Hare Mar­tin and a man called Dr Daniel Peter Hughes Tay­lor, a Cre­ole from Sierra Leone who had stud­ied medicine in Lon­don. He was not con­ceived in wed­lock, and it’s pos­si­ble that Dr Tay­lor went back to Africa be­fore find­ing out that his beloved was preg­nant. He was named Sa­muel Co­leridge-Tay­lor af­ter the poet Sa­muel Tay­lor Co­leridge. Brought up in Croy­don, he learnt to play the vi­o­lin from his grand­fa­ther. The young Co­leridge-Tay­lor showed great abil­ity and his grandad paid for him to have fur­ther vi­o­lin lessons. Imag­ine this – the ex­tended fam­ily then clubbed to­gether for him to study at the Royal Col­lege of Mu­sic when he was 15!

What made him a hero?

He’s my hero be­cause when suc­cess hit he was able to use it to tell sto­ries about his ra­cial ori­gins in a mu­si­cal way that might up­lift the race as much as demon­strate how tal­ented he was. He was a judge at mu­sic fes­ti­vals; he was an ex­am­ple of a per­son of colour in the pub­lic eye re­ceiv­ing crit­i­cal suc­cess. In Amer­ica, he was em­braced as a hero by the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity who in the ear­lier years of the 20th cen­tury knew the name of Sa­muel Co­leridge-Tay­lor as well as they later knew that of Mar­tin Luther King Jr or Mal­colm X. His in­ter­pre­ta­tion of melodies such as ‘Deep River’, as per­formed by the Fisk Ju­bilee Singers, was renowned and he wrote in the pro­gramme notes of those pieces that “what Brahms has done for the Hun­gar­ian folk mu­sic, Dvo­rak for the Bo­hemian, and Grieg for the Nor­we­gian, I have tried to do for these Ne­gro melodies”.

What was his finest hour?

‘Hi­awatha’s Wed­ding Feast’ was so pop­u­lar that the Royal Al­bert Hall had a ‘Hi­awatha’ sea­son, which re­curred an­nu­ally up un­til 1939. The film ver­sion is ex­tra­or­di­nary to see – with hun­dreds of su­per­nu­mer­aries dressed in indige­nous Na­tive Amer­i­can clob­ber, yelp­ing and whoop­ing and singing along! There is some­thing strangely uplift­ing about this and I can’t stop equat­ing Co­leridgeTay­lor to some­one like Prince, a prodigy.

Can you see any par­al­lels be­tween his life and your own?

I was one of three black kids in my school and Co­leridge-Tay­lor was per­haps the only black per­son study­ing at his col­lege, so he stuck out in the same way I stuck out. I’m sure that can’t have been easy for him. I read that he suf­fered ra­cial in­sults at school and at one time some­one set his hair on fire – still, it didn’t stop him from study­ing the vi­o­lin with ex­tra in­ten­sity. Imag­ine that!

If you could meet him, what would you ask?

What’s the se­cret of your mu­si­cal tal­ent? Can you help me through grade five pi­ano?

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