Notes in time: Retracing the influence of Black British musicians in the 15th-19th centuries.

By Sophia Harberd

For centuries Black people have been shaping the popular music scene in Britain. By the 15th century, Black music traditions were being carried en masse with the African diaspora over the 400-year period when swathes of Africans were stolen and brought across the Atlantic into the ‘New World’. This population of the African diaspora found ways to express their culture in an effort to preserve and resist against the loss of their identities. These ‘African retentions’, from native drum patterns, dances, and approaches to composition and performances also mixed with musical influence in the ‘New World’, birthing alternative forms of expression within Black Atlantic musical culture.

Evidence of Black Renaissance musicians has been found. “Moor Taubronar” was an African drummer and skilled choreographer employed by James IV who came to the throne in 1488. Moor Taubronar travelled with King James IV and his court through Scotland, was paid wages, and likely lived in the palace with his wife and child! Records show that many Black Moors present within the court had been invited by James IV as guests or musicians, and their influence is thought to be found today in performances such as Morris dancing, which may come from “Moorish dancing” of Black performers in British courts. 

John Blanke (fl. 1501-1511) was a Black royal trumpeter and multi-talented musician in the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. He contributed to some of the greatest spectacles of the Tudor Period (1485-1603), and was also paid his own wage, even successfully petitioning for a higher one! He appears on numerous court records, and even on the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll tapestry, which is an incredibly rare occurrence for a Black person during this period.

Following these examples, increased documentation of Black British musicians can be seen in the 18th century. Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) was one of the first published Black British musicians, writing four books of songs and lively dance music. He had taught himself how to read, write, and compose music, and often used this skill to speak out against the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. Like Sancho, Guinea-born British musician Joseph Emidy (1775-1835) was enslaved in his early years. His talents as a violinist led him to play with the Lisbon Opera Orchestra, and later as the leader of the Truro Philharmonic Orchestra, composing several works including concertos and a symphony. Prior to his career in Cornwall, he had spent several years as the fiddler of Admiral Sir Pellew’s ship, who had kidnapped him after being impressed upon hearing Emidy play. 

A second notable Black virtuoso violinist is George Bridgetower (1778-1860), who impressed Beethoven so much with his compositions that Beethoven dedicated his Violin Sonata No.9 in A minor (Op.47) to Bridgetower, and presented him with his tuning fork. The sonata, Kreutzer, is one of Beethoven’s most famous and passionate pieces that had been inspired by Bridgetower. Beethoven had been surprised by Bridgetower’s ability to imitate and then expand on a short piano cadenza in the first movement, jumping up, hugging him, and exclaiming, “My dear boy! Once more!”. Like much Black history of the Victorian era and before, Bridgetower has been largely unrepresented in historical text, and so this is of great significance for a prodigy musician whose Black father had been, not long before, enslaved.  

With the 19th century came another prominent Black-British musician, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). Coleridge-Taylor was best known for his trilogy of cantatas on the epic poem Song of Hiawatha, which were widely performed by choral groups in England. Coleridge-Taylor sought to integrate inspiration from traditional African music, especially that of his Sierra Leonean ancestry, into the classical music tradition. His success took him on a  tour in America, where he was received by President Roosevelt at the White House (extremely uncommon for Black people of this time!) and gained great support from African-Americans. Coleridge-Taylor’s work has still been consistently performed, with immense audience support, at large and important venues such as the Royal Albert Hall following his young death. Highlighting the amazing legacies of these Black British musicians is important in demonstrating the long-standing influence that Black people have had on British music for many generations.  

The family lineage of some of these musicians persevered for many years, and even in cases, still exist in Britain today. Coleridge-Taylor’s daughter, Avril, who was a talented pianist, conductor, and composer had carried and expanded upon her father’s legacy until her death in 1998 at the age of 95. Becoming the first woman to ever conduct the HMS Royal Marines band, and regularly conducting top orchestras such as the London symphony orchestra, Avril also composed extensively, including important pieces such as the Ceremonial March, an orchestral work to celebrate Ghana’s independence. Emidy, additionally, had eight children, and his fourth-great granddaughter lives in Devon today. 

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