Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Deep River


Born in August 1875 in Holborn, London, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor started learning the violin at a young age. At first it was Coleridge-Taylor’s maternal grandfather that taught him until he saw his obvious abilities and paid for him to have professional lessons. At age 15, Coleridge-Taylor started studying at the Royal College of Music, it was here he changed from violin performance to composition. Whilst at RCM he was tutored by Charles Villiers Stanford. 

Straight out of conservatoire, Coleridge-Taylor became a busy working musician. He worked with the liked o Elgar and Villiers Stanford throughout his relatively short life. Critics described him as a “musical genius” and his music soon gained success over in the USA. He toured the USA three times and was met by President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. Coleridge-Taylor was particularly popular among African Americans, as much of his music sought to integrate African traditions with Western classical music.  

Deep River was composed in 1904 as part of Coleridge-Taylor’s 24 Negro Spirituals. It has remained one his most famous compositions. 


The Music

Originally scored for solo piano, Deep River draws inspiration from the original song lyrics:


Deep river, my home is over Jordan; 

Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.

Oh don’t you want to go to that gospel feast, 

that Promised Land where all is peace?

Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.


Of this collection,Coleridge-Taylor famously said:


“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.”


The slow tempo marking of the piece sets the scene as a bar of repeated chords lays the foundation for the melody. The simple chordal accompaniment keeps the focus on the melody that represents the words of Deep River. The music is almost bluesy at times, with Coleridge-Taylor’s use of dissonance remaining nuanced and highly effective. 

As the hands begin to interweave with another with fragments of the melody, a climactic section bursts out. The louder dynamic here is striking and the almost fanfare-like motif drastically changes the texture. As the hand unite to reach the climax of this central section, the dynamic suddenly drops back into the opening theme. 

A repeat of the opening theme is heard again before the melody is developed further through the manipulation of rhythms. As the dynamic begins to drop again the hand unite for one final repetition of the melody. Deep River concludes with a gentle flourish from the right hand, before two warm lower chords finish the piece off. 


Final Thoughts

Although Samuel Coleridge-Taylor only had a short career due to passing away at age 37, what he was able to achieve in that time was incredible. He paved the way for many to come after him and his music lives on strong today. Deep River proudly shows Coleridge-Taylor’s heritage and is still widely performed today.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

Image Source


You might also enjoy… Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No.9 (‘From the New World’)


Recommended Recordings:

Categories: BlogsSolo


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *