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Nov 11, 2021 06:00 PM - 06:50 PM(America/Chicago)
20211111T1800 20211111T1850 America/Chicago The Music of Ignatius Sancho: The Arts as Black Resistance in Eighteenth-Century London

The Music of Ignatius Sancho:The Arts as Black Resistance in Eighteenth-Century London

A lecture-recital bySonya Headlam, sopranoRebecca Cypess, historical keyboardist

In 1766, the Black writer and musician Ignatius Sancho (1729–1780) penned a letter to the white British author Laurence Sterne, whose Sermons of Mr. Yorick had decried the slave trade as a "poison." Sancho, born into slavery himself, was so moved by this passage from Sterne's sermons that he implored its author to "give half an hour's attention to slavery" in the next installment of his novel Tristram Shandy. In doing so, Sancho argued, Sterne would perhaps "ease the yoke" of his "miserable black brethren" by touching and amending the hearts of Sterne's readers. The need could not have been more urgent: by the 1760s, after all, Britain was one of the most successful slave-trading nations in Europe. British traders violently captured and enslaved an average of 42,000 African people annually, yielding profits for large swaths of the British population. Sancho's letter to Sterne, a resolute protest of slavery, asserted that the arts could awaken the empathy of white Britons for Black Africans and for the causes of abolition and emancipation.

Sancho's extensive correspondence, published and widely emulated for its "conversable" literary style, and his original musical compositions-four volumes of short instrumental pieces and one modest book of songs printed in the 1760s and 1770s-further attest to his determination that the arts could serve to disrupt slavery. Sancho's compositional style is characteristic of eighteenth-century London. Yet this style takes on added significance in light of Sancho's race: by participating in t ...

AMS 2021 ams@amsmusicology.org

The Music of Ignatius Sancho:
The Arts as Black Resistance in Eighteenth-Century London

A lecture-recital by
Sonya Headlam, soprano
Rebecca Cypess, historical keyboardist

In 1766, the Black writer and musician Ignatius Sancho (1729–1780) penned a letter to the white British author Laurence Sterne, whose Sermons of Mr. Yorick had decried the slave trade as a "poison." Sancho, born into slavery himself, was so moved by this passage from Sterne's sermons that he implored its author to "give half an hour's attention to slavery" in the next installment of his novel Tristram Shandy. In doing so, Sancho argued, Sterne would perhaps "ease the yoke" of his "miserable black brethren" by touching and amending the hearts of Sterne's readers. The need could not have been more urgent: by the 1760s, after all, Britain was one of the most successful slave-trading nations in Europe. British traders violently captured and enslaved an average of 42,000 African people annually, yielding profits for large swaths of the British population. Sancho's letter to Sterne, a resolute protest of slavery, asserted that the arts could awaken the empathy of white Britons for Black Africans and for the causes of abolition and emancipation.

Sancho's extensive correspondence, published and widely emulated for its "conversable" literary style, and his original musical compositions-four volumes of short instrumental pieces and one modest book of songs printed in the 1760s and 1770s-further attest to his determination that the arts could serve to disrupt slavery. Sancho's compositional style is characteristic of eighteenth-century London. Yet this style takes on added significance in light of Sancho's race: by participating in the arts of music and literature, we argue, Sancho defied white Britons' inferiorization of Blacks, which was used as justification to treat human beings like property. 

Sancho had a personal history with the savageness of slavery. The biographical sketch that introduces his published correspondence reports that he was born on a ship crossing the Middle Passage in 1729, and that he was orphaned when his mother died and his father committed suicide to escape slavery. Sancho was taken to England, where he was first kept in slavery. He later escaped to a life of employment in the service of the Montagu family, educated himself, married and raised a family, opened a shop near Parliament, and became active in London's cultural scene. Despite being openly derided by some-including Thomas Jefferson, who read Sancho's posthumously published correspondence-Sancho became widely known as a "man of letters," and his published writings helped to ignite the British abolitionist movement.

In this lecture-recital we present songs and instrumental pieces by Sancho as well as two composers in his circle-Thomas Arne and Charles Dibdin-to illuminate the significance of Sancho's music. We argue that Sancho drew on a particular vocabulary of cultural symbols not only to assert his presence as a Black composer in London's musical landscape, but also to challenge slavery and the myth of white superiority. 

Two examples will illustrate this point. First, it is significant that Sancho's New Collection of Songs draws on the figure of Shakespeare by featuring one text from Measure for Measure and two others from David Garrick's Ode, written for the Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769. Sancho himself had once played the role of Othello-he was perhaps the first Black actor to do so-and, in his letters, he traced his own literary lineage to the fictional Othello. As Shakespeare came, increasingly, to be seen as a figure who could unite the British Empire around love of the "national poet," Sancho's New Collection of Songs rendered Shakespeare in Sancho's own voice, thus asserting that Shakespeare's legacy must encompass a truer universalism. 

A second example of Sancho's use of widely understood cultural symbols in his music is his instrumental piece "Mungo's Delight." This title refers to a character from Charles Dibdin's The Padlock, mounted at Garrick's theater at Drury Lane, in which Dibdin himself-in blackface- played a caricature of a Black servant named Mungo. Mungo was the first fully developed blackface comic figure on the London stage and one of the earliest to speak in a caricature of Black dialect. Indeed, as historian Tony Frazier has shown, The Padlock presented an utterly demeaning portrait of blackness, and Mungo's role featured egregious stereotypes. Sancho's instrumental piece "Mungo's Delight" adopted similar musical gestures to those in Dibdin's composition. Yet Sancho's reappropriation of Mungo's music-and indeed, his compositions as a whole-may be understood as pushing back against the dehumanization of blackness, as well as a protest of slavery. 

This lecture-recital advances the project of reanimating Sancho's musical ideals and his presence. Listening to Sancho's music and understanding his aesthetic goals will elucidate his vision of music and the arts as vehicles for Black resistance.

Rutgers University
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