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Black Composers and Musicians in Classical Music History

Utilizing the research of Professor Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, historian William J. Zick in the article below provides vignettes which comprise an overview of various composers and musicians of African ancestry who performed in Europe, North America, and Latin America from the 16th Century to the 20th Century. His listing begins with the earliest known black performer, John Blanke, a royal trumpeter in the Courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII.

English Royal records document the employment of John Blanke, listed as “the blacke trumpeter” and paid by the day by both Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII.  A pictorially illuminated manuscript of the Tournament of Westminster on New Year’s Day in 1511, commissioned by Henry VIII to celebrate the birth of his son (who died as an infant) to his wife Catherine of Aragon, clearly portrays Blanke as a mounted black trumpeter.

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) was an African composer and author whose published letters tell much about his life.  Raised as a house slave in Greenwich, England, he taught himself to read and educated himself very broadly from books owned by an aristocratic family with whom he obtained employment as a young man.  Sixty-two of his short compositions survive in four self-published volumes.   

Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), an Afro-French composer, violinist, and conductor, won his first fame not as a musician but as Frances best fencer.  Born Joseph de Bologne, on December 25, 1745 on a plantation near Basse-Terre, on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, he was the son of a slave woman of African descent and a French plantation owner.  Educated in France, de Bologne was only 19 when his mastery of the violin and the harpsichord earned him a dedication from Antonio Lolli in 1764.  More came from François-Joseph Gossec (1766) and Carl Stamitz (1770).  By 1771, Saint-Georges was first violin of a distinguished 70-member ensemble, Le Concert des amateurs.   He became one of the earliest French