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Ballade in A minor, Op. 33 (1898)

Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai


A year after graduating from the Royal College of Music, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor received a commission from the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in 1898. Initially offered to Sir Edward Elgar, the senior composer suggested his protégé, writing: "I have received a request from the secretary to write a short orchestra thing for the evening concert. I am sorry, I am too busy to do so (he was about to compose the Enigma Variations). I wish, wish, wish you would ask Coleridge-Taylor to do it. He is far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men. Please don't let your committee throw away the chance of doing a good act." The resulting commissioned work, Ballade in A minor, helped establish the young composer's career, expanding his reach across the Atlantic.


In the United States and the United Kingdom, 1898 delivered territorial expansions for both nations. After the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), European countries began establishing a presence in China. The U.K. signed the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory with the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) on June 9, 1898, extending Hong Kong for 200 miles. The "New Territories" fell under the complete U.K. jurisdiction for 99 years (ending on June 30, 1997). Following the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai'i, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution (Newlands Resolution) annexing the Republic of Hawai'i on July 7, 1898.



Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn, London, in 1875. His father, Daniel Taylor, was a Creole from Sierra Leone who had come to London to study medicine before returning to West Africa. Following music lessons with his grandfather, he entered the Royal College of Music (aged 15), initially studying the violin before turning to composition under the tutelage of Charles Villiers Stanford. On completing his degree, he took up a career as a professional musician and was soon appointed as professor at the Crystal Palace School of Music, and orchestra conductor at the Croydon Conservatoire. August Jaeger, the music editor at Novello, encouraged him in his early compositional career. Jaeger described Coleridge-Taylor as "a genius" to Elgar.


The composer’s most tremendous success came with the cantata Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, the first part of a trilogy – The Song of Hiawatha - setting Longfellow's epic poem. The work premiered in London at the Royal College of Music in 1898. Among the audience was Sir Arthur Sullivan, who noted in his diary that he had been "much impressed by the lad's genius." In the years immediately following its premiere, hundreds of performances took place around Britain and abroad, most notably in the United States.


At the height of his career, Coleridge-Taylor toured the U.S. on several occasions, conducting his works around the country to considerable acclaim. In 1904, on the first of three such tours, the composer was dubbed the "African Mahler" and met President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House; a rare distinction for a person of African descent. Unfortunately, the success of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast was not matched by financial reward. Having sold the rights of the work to Novello for 15 guineas, neither the composer nor his descendants received any royalties despite the hundreds of performances and thousands of copies sold following its publication. Although it was not uncommon at this time for a composer to sell their rights outright to a publisher, Coleridge-Taylor's case played an essential role in the creation of the Performing Rights Society in Great Britain in the years following his death.


Aside from the cantatas which made his name, Coleridge-Taylor's output encompasses chamber and choral music and more significant works, including a Violin Concerto and an opera, Thelma, which remained unperformed until 2012. Many of these pieces incorporate themes from African music in a manner that the composer acknowledged was reminiscent of Brahms' and Dvorak's approach to central European folk music. Performances of his work continued in the years immediately following his death. By the Second World War, he was remembered solely for his Hiawatha trilogy. Having fallen out of fashion, his music became infrequently heard. Although interest in the composer's life and career has gradually revived since the late 1990s with revivals of long-neglected pieces, several recordings, and posthumous publications, the full extent of his cultural contribution today still needs to be appreciated and awaits rediscovery. (Wise Music Classical)



Songful melodic lyricism and dramatic storytelling are the main ingredients for the free-form-19th-century instrumental ballade. The Ballade in A-minor opens with a churning Verdi-kissed twister of chromatic turmoil. Like the literary lyrical ballad (spelled without the e), the music proceeds in recurring stanzas, recalling an epic windswept adventure. The opening melody traverses a sea of key changes, interspersed with stunning Romantic writing rivaling the late Romantic composers.


The composer's mother, Alice Hare Martin, named her son after the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1798, Coleridge (the poet) and poet William Wordsworth jump-started the Romantic literary movement with the publication of their collective poems, Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems. The pair set out to revamp the classical forms of poetry using the present vernacular. Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was included in the collection, a powerful poem recounting a long sea voyage through a perilous sea storm and supernatural encounters. Taken together with the composer and poets shared names, the ballad(e) as a literary and musical vehicle, the 100th anniversary of Coleridge's poem, and the stormy character of the Ballade in A minor, the "Ancient Mariner" offers a unique framing link.


The 13-minute score calls for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.


Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn, London, England, on August 15, 1875, and died on September 1, 1912, in Croydon, Surrey, England.

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