Black History Month – Black composers (part one)

As Black History Month draws to a close, the Music Library explores Black composers and performers who we believe deserve a place on your playlist all year round. The first in a series of blogs, we look at some of the earliest documented Black classical composers. 

Ignatius Sancho 
According to a biography by Joseph Jekyll, Ignatius Sancho was born on a slave ship en route to the Spanish West Indies from Guinea around 1729. However, according to his letters that were published posthumously, Sancho states that he was born in Africa. Sancho’s mother died when he was a baby and his father committed suicide when faced with a life in enslavement. The orphaned Sancho was forced to work as a slave at a house in Greenwich when he was around the age of two and it was during this time that he met the 2nd Duke of Montagu, John Montagu, who helped Sancho further his education, having already taught himself to read and write. Alongside his wife, Anne Osborne, Sancho set up a grocery store in Westminster after working for the Montagu family for twenty years. The shop helped cement Sancho’s position as a cultural figure as it was a meeting point for several famous figures from the arts and politics. Sancho became the first person of African descent to vote in a British general election, becoming eligible to vote in 1774 as a financially independent male householder. After his death in 1780, his obituary in British newspapers is the first known to be published for a person of African descent. 

Ignatius Sancho, 1768 by Thomas Gainsborough from the National Gallery of Canada via Wikimedia Commons

Alongside his letters, plays and abolitionist work, Sancho was a composer. He published a Theory of Music and many musical works of which only four collections of compositions still exist. One such collection is Minuets, Cotillons & Country Dances, a manuscript of which is held in the British Library. 

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges 
Dubbed “the most accomplished man in Europe” by former US president John Adams, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a composer, musician, conductor and master swordsman. He is best known now for being the first classical composer of African descent. The Chevalier was born in Guadeloupe in 1745, the illegitimate son of an African slave girl and a plantation owner. His father took him to France whilst he was still a young boy. Here he became a master swordsman, before becoming one of the first black colonels in the French Army. 

Little is known about the Chevalier’s early musical education but he was a violin virtuoso and was one of Marie Antoinette’s music teachers. He wrote symphonies, several concertante and chamber works, before turning his attention to opera. Sadly, much of his work was lost during the French Revolution. Saint-Georges was proposed to be director of Paris Opéra but he withdrew his name from consideration after three of the company’s leading ladies presented a petition to Marie Antoinette, stating that they could not follow Saint-Georges’ orders due to the colour of his skin. 

Portrait of Joseph Bologne de Saint-George by William Ward via Wikimedia Commons

The Chevalier is also known as the ‘Black Mozart’ due to the comparisons of his music with that of the Austrian composer, who was 11 years younger than Saint-Georges. This nickname is now deemed unfair as it appears that Mozart stole an idea from Saint-Georges for his Sinfonia Concertante. Mozart was highly jealous of the Chevalier – feelings almost certainly fuelled by racism – and is believed to have based the villain Monostatos from his opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) on Saint-Georges. 

Saint-Georges performed as the soloist for all his violin concertos played with his orchestra, Le Concert Olympique, wowing the Parisian audiences and leading to his orchestra being declared the best in France. Saint-Georges commissioned Joseph Haydn to write the Paris Symphonies, which were premiered by Le Concert Olympique during the 1787 season. 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor 
Not to be confused with the poet after whom his name was given, the English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875. Raised in Croydon, his father was a doctor from Sierra Leone whilst his mother was English. Coleridge-Taylor grew up in a musical family and learned to play the violin whilst he was very young. His talent was apparent and he won a scholarship at the Royal College of Music at the age of 15, becoming one of the first Black students there. It was there that he shifted from the violin to composing, studying under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. His compositions were already being published by major houses by the time he was eighteen and these works enjoyed many more performances than Coleridge-Taylor’s contemporaries Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. In fact, the Royal College of Music premiered Coleridge-Taylor’s Symphony in A Minor in March 1896, featuring Holst on trombone and Vaughan Williams on triangle! Despite its warm reception, this work is now difficult to secure in its full form. 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, unknown author, restored by Adam Cuerden, from the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons

His most popular work is The Song of Hiawatha, a trilogy of cantatas the most famous of which is Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, first performed in 1898. Despite ill health, Sir Arthur Sullivan attended the work’s premiere, stating he would “hear [Coleridge-Taylor’s] music tonight even if I have to be carried”, later noting in his diary that night that he was “much impressed by the lad’s genius”. By 1904, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast had been performed 200 times in England alone and the success of the piece led Coleridge-Taylor to embark on a total of three tours of the United States of America. During these visits, he met with African American civil rights leader Booker T. Washington and was invited to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt. 

After seeing the treatment of Black people in America, Coleridge-Taylor campaigned for equal rights, and this was illustrated in the use of African themes in his music. In the preface for this work Twenty-Four Negro Melodies, he wrote: “What Brahms has done for Hungarian folk music, Dvorak for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro melodies.” The critics did not receive Coleridge-Taylor’s more Afrocentric compositions as well as his earlier works. 

Unfortunately, Coleridge-Taylor died young, aged 37. His two children, Hiawatha and Avril, both became professional musicians. The fact that Coleridge-Taylor and his family gained no royalties from The Song of Hiawatha – after he had sold the rights early for income – contributed to the foundation of the Performing Rights Society. 

Works by most of these individuals and many other Black composers and performers can be found on Naxos Music Library, where you can stream and download classical music for free with your library card. 

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