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Sierra Leone’s unsung hero: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor 1875 – 1912

Sierra Leone’s unsung hero: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor 1875 – 1912

I attended the world premier of the opera Thelma, by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, which was performed by the Surrey Opera at the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon, UK on Thursday 9th February 2012.  This work was for a long time believed to be lost or destroyed; it was mis-catalogued in the British Library, and unearthed by Dr Catherine Carr in the course of research for her PhD thesis.  The Mayor, Councillor Graham Bass, and Lady Mayoress together with the Festival Patron, Sir John Tomlinson CBE attended.  Also present in the audience was Mrs Florence Bangalie who is Head of Chancery at the Sierra Leone High Commission, and a few other Sierra Leoneans taking part in a year-long festival during this Centenary year of Celebration of the composer’s life, and work.  HE Mr Edward M Turay was appointed a Vice President of the Festival.  (Photo: Sir Samuel Coleridge-Taylor)

The story of Thelma is presented as a Norse myth; good triumphs over evil and true love reigns (in the Romantic tradition).


Thelma is the daughter of King Olaf; she is in love with Earl Eric and he is in love with her.  A bad man, Carl, also wants to marry Thelma.  King Olaf wants her to marry Carl.  Another lady, Gudrun, is in love with Carl.

King Olaf sets a challenge for Thelma’s two suitors: she will marry the man who recovers a golden goblet that he lost to the sea where it is held in a kingdom of fearsome but good-natured sea necks.  But it is necessary to pass through a dangerous maelstrom to reach that kingdom.

Eric’s fairy godmother gives him an amulet to protect him on his journey.  Carl steals it from him but Gudrun, knowing its story, returns it to Eric.  Carl, assuming that Eric will be killed without the amulet’s protection, tells the King that Eric is dead and Carl’s wedding to Thelma is arranged.

Meanwhile, Eric gets the golden goblet and returns it to the King just in time before the marriage takes place.  King Olaf arranges for Eric and Thelma to wed instead.  Carl tries to kill Eric but Gudrun interposes herself and she is killed instead.  Carl is carried off.  Eric marries Thelma and everybody is happy!

About Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Black man, was one of the foremost English composers of his generation.

His father was Dr Daniel Peter Hughes from Sierra Leone.  He trained in England as a doctor and worked as a GP with a senior partner; when the senior partner died, he inevitably lost most of his patients and returned to Sierra Leone.  Meanwhile, 18 year old Alice Martin gave birth to his son in August 1875, and with her father’s support raised S C-T including his training at the Royal College of Music in London.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a founding organiser of the Pan African Congress in London in 1900.  In Washington DC, the “Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society” was formed by around 200 Black singers to perform his work.  They sponsored his first trip to the USA.

As well as being a prolific composer, he was for periods of his life the “chief conductor” of the Croydon Symphony Orchestra and the Rochester Choral Society and he lectured at Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music.

He died of pneumonia at the age of 37.

His work was incredibly popular in the UK before the Second World War: the Royal Albert Hall held an annual costumed production of his Song of Hiawatha choral trilogy conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent.  His work went out of fashion after 1945.

Educated in composition at the Royal College of Music under C. V. Stanford in the same year as Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, his music is very much English music of that period. The Music scholar can hear, in Thelma, influences of Dvorak, Mahler, Wagner and Delius professionally delivered by the lead Lady Joanna Weeks and a stalwart cast of excellent voices.  As an untrained thespian, and a pioneer of operatic performances of the Freetown Choral Society of yore, I enjoyed the production immensely and found that S C-T had his own distinctive style of composition; the choreography was impeccable, but I missed leaving with a memorable tune or song.  The high standard of the production was due in no small measure to the Artist Director, Christopher Cowell, and the Conductor, Jonathan Butcher GRSM ARSM LRAM.  How I yearned that we could boast such an orchestra in Sierra Leone, or even a much smaller group!  I anticipate that the Ballanta Academy will recognise this great son of our land, and also celebrate his Centenary year in an appropriate manner.  There is no doubt that we should all be especially proud of this famous countryman with family connections such as our most renowned ex-Mayor of Freetown 1948-54, Alderman Eustace Henry Taylor Cummings CBE, and I strongly believe that any posthumous National Honour would seem an obvious reward for his timely achievements setting Sierra Leone so firmly on the World stage those many decades ago.

Read further information at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation

By Sqn Ldr Winston Forde RAF Ret’d.

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  • I was enormously proud to sing in the chorus of ‘Thelma’ last week and I am pleased to read a review of the work in S C-T’s native Sierra Leone. How small the world is these days!

    Just one very small typo in the dates. He was born in 1875, not 1857.

    Best wishes,
    Phil Wallace, Surrey Opera

    12th February 2012

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