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Meet Avril Coleridge-Taylor: Composer, Conductor, and Musical Activist

Composer, conductor, and pianist Avril Coleridge-Taylor was determined to make a name for herself from a young age, despite the discrimination she faced as a multiracial woman. Coleridge-Taylor would go on to conduct several major symphony orchestras, compose over 90 works, and become not only a frequent conductor at BBC Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra but also the first woman conductor of the HMS Royal Marines Band. CYSO’s Concert Orchestra had the privilege to perform her work Sussex Landscape, Op. 27 during their concert last fall. Today, Social Media Team member Marisa Lin invites you to explore Avril Coleridge-Taylor’s story and her successes as a brilliant conductor and groundbreaking composer.


Avril Coleridge Taylor

Avril Coleridge-Taylor was born on March 8th, 1903 in South Norwood, a district in southeast London, England. Her life was surrounded by music from the very start. Her father, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, was a famous world-famous composer of mixed English and Sierra Leonean background. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor passed away from pneumonia when Avril was only 9 years old, and later in life, she would write a biography of her father’s life and work, titled The Heritage of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1979).

Following in her father’s footsteps, Avril Coleridge-Taylor was a prodigious pianist and composed both piano and orchestral works at a young age. She wrote her first composition, Goodbye Butterfly, at the age of 12, which earned her a scholarship to study piano and composition at the Trinity College of Music (now known as the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance). 

The Coleridge-Taylor Family with Avril Coleridge-Taylor (center front) and Samuel Coleridg-Taylor (left).

In 1933, Coleridge-Taylor made her conducting debut at the Royal Albert Hall in London. She went on to be the first woman to conduct the H.M.S. Royal Marine Band and was a frequent guest conductor for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. She also founded the Coleridge-Taylor Symphony Orchestra, which also had an accompanying musical society dedicated to employing musicians during the Great Depression.

In 1939, Coleridge-Taylor moved to Buxted, a village located in East Sussex in England. She was enchanted by the landscape and composed several works inspired by it, including tone poem Sussex Landscape, which CYSO’s Concert Orchestra performed at their fall of 2023 concert. Conductor Maestro Mascari shared that he first heard Sussex Landscape performed by the Chineke! Orchestra on the radio—the only recording of a performance since it was written—and he was determined to have Concert Orchestra perform it. 

Sussex Landscape was written immediately after the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and contains a much bleaker and desolate atmosphere than what audiences commonly associate with the idyllic countryside. It became a rare example of a “war work” created by women, going against the domesticity of how historically women’s compositions are framed, and shows an important yet seldomly documented perspective in history.

In a letter to the publisher Dennis Dobson, Avril Coleridge-Taylor speaks of her experience being a Black woman in a male-dominated profession and the child of a celebrated parent. She comments particularly on how her work as a conductor has been underrepresented over the years. (Cadbury Research Library)

Coleridge-Taylor went on to tour in South Africa in 1952. However, once the South African government learned of her Black heritage, she was banned from composing or conducting there under its Apartheid policies. Perhaps inspired by these events, she focused on composing efforts to celebrate her African heritage and composed Ceremonial March to celebrate the independence of Ghana.

In 1998, Coleridge-Taylor passed away at 95 years old in her home in Seaford, Sussex, England. Throughout her life and despite her remarkable achievements, she still faced discrimination due to her gender and racial background. Some critics even accused her of taking advantage of having her father’s last name, so she would occasionally publish her works under the pseudonym Peter Riley to prove her merit. Nevertheless, she had a largely successful career despite the barriers she faced, and her pieces are still widely played today.

Avril Coleridge-Taylor plays piano in her East Sussex home.

You can learn about other women composers in our recent blog post, Celebrating Women in Music: 5 Composers to Know. Listen to Avril Colerdige-Taylor’s Sussex Landscape performed by Chineke! Orchestra, and read about recent efforts to restore her works by music writer Leah Broad.

ABOUT MARISA

Marisa Lin

Marisa Lin is a violinist in CYSO’s Concert Orchestra and junior at Lyons Township High School. When she’s not practicing, you can find Marisa developing new recipes for her baking blog or taking goofy pictures of her dog.

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