As well as his famous letters, Ignatius Sancho wrote four books of songs and lively dance music, including this collection of Minuets, Cotillons & Country Dances. He was the first composer of African descent to publish music in the European tradition, and this book shows how he managed this cultural balancing act.
According to Joseph Jekyll’s 1782 biography, Sancho was born around 1729 on a slave ship bound from Africa to the West Indies. When he was about two, he was brought to England and presented by his master to three sisters in Greenwich, London. Yet he managed to escape and secure himself an education and employment in the noble Montagu household, where he gained an extensive knowledge of British literature and music. His music was probably performed at the Montagus’ private parties, and perhaps also at gatherings of black servants in Georgian London.
Although most of his letters were not published in his lifetime, Sancho paid for this volume to be printed around 1767. Like many amateur musicians, he published it anonymously, but stated on the title page that it was ‘Composed by an African’. He might have hoped to increase sales by making it sound exotic. Yet, at the same time, he made it clear that he had noble English connections. The work is dedicated to Henry, Duke of Buccleuch, who had married into the Montagu family.
Sancho’s 24 dance tunes, with their French and English titles, use the musical styles most fashionable in polite Georgian society. The minuet, in triple time, was the most important couple dance of the 18th century. Cotillons were French dances with varying figurations, while country dances were performed in line-dance formation. Alongside the score, Sancho offers step-by-step dance instructions. In ‘Les Contes des Fees’, the gentleman should ‘turn his Partner, Balance’ and perform a ‘Rigadoon Step’ ‒ a tricky hopping manoeuvre.
Here, you can hear electronic recordings of eight pieces from this collection.