Black Mahler: The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story

Written by Charles Elford
Review by Sarah Newman

Black Mahler tells the story of the almost-forgotten 19th-century composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. This book charts his life, beginning with being born to a white mother and black African father and raised in London, to impressing a violin teacher with his talent at only five years old, to later winning a scholarship at the prestigious Royal College of Music, to finding love. He was most famous for composing “The Song of Hiawatha,” which earned him international success, but little else was known about this talented man. Extremely modest, Coleridge-Taylor was nevertheless proclaimed by African Americans to be a cultural hero, as very few African people were lauded so highly at that time. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s life was fraught with problems and he died of pneumonia, brought on by exhaustion, at the age of 37.

I was intrigued to learn about the life of this man, and particularly whether his colour affected the opportunities available to him. Race does have its place in the story, as the reverence shown towards him by African Americans is palpable, but in Black Mahler there is not much to suggest Coleridge-Taylor was actively hindered in his work because of his colour. His ill-treatment by Novello is more apparent. It was also interesting to read about the difficult relationship between Jessie Coleridge-Taylor, his wife, and his daughter, Gwen, which led to Gwen changing her name in later life.

As little is recorded about Coleridge-Taylor’s life, many of the scenes are the author’s interpretation, but Charles Elford writes passionately about his subject, and I found Black Mahler to be a very believable and touching depiction of this unsung talent.