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Columbia College Chicago
Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius Sancho

International Dictionary of Black Composers

Music List
Composer Essay
A Collection of New Songs
Second Book of Minuets and Other Dances

Born near Guinea, West Africa, 1729; died in London, England, December 14, 1780.

Education: Educated by his patron, John, Second Duke of Montagu, a former governor of Jamaica; after John’s death, granted a stipend by the Montagu family and then a position as a servant, 1749; remained in their employ until 1773; London, worked as a grocery and oil supplier, 1773 until his death.

Composing and Performing Career: Attempted to pursue a career as an actor, ca. 1759; published a Theory of Music (lost), one collection of songs, ca. 1769, and three collections of dances for various instrumentations, ca. 1767, ca. 1769, 1779; his collected letters were published in 1782.

   Music List

Instrumental Solos


Twelve Country Dances for the Year 1779, Set for the Harpsichord. London: A. & B. Thompson, 1779. Contents: Lady Mary Montagu’s Reel; Culford Heath Camp; Ruffs and Rhees; Bushy Park; Lord Dalkeith’s Reel; Lindrindod Lasses; Trip to Dilington; Strawberrys and Cream; All of One Mind; The Royal Bishop; Dutchess of Devonshire’s Reel; Mungos Delight.

Small Instrumental Ensemble

Menuets, Cotillions and Other Country Dances for the Violin, Mandolin, German-flute and Harpsichord. ca. 1769. London: Richard Duke, 1770. Contents: Minuet 1st; Minuet 2nd; Minuet 3rd; Minuet 4th; Minuet 5th; Minuet 6th; Minuet 7th; Minuet 8th; Minuet 9th; Minuet 10th; Minuet 11th; Minuet 12th; Minuet 13th; Air; Gavotta; Sir Harry Flutter; Richmond Hill; Marianne’s Reel; Who’d a Thought It; Hornpipe.

Menuets, Cotillions and Other Country Dances for the Violin, Mandolin, German-flute, and Harpsichord Composed by an African. ca. 1767. London: Richard Duke, ca. 1770. Contents: Minuetto 1; Minuetto 2–Rondo; Minuet 3; Minuet 4; Minuet 5; Minuet 6; Le jour de May; The Merry Wives of Westminster; Les Contes des Fees; Christmas Eve; Le douze de Decembre; Nothing At All; Kew Gardens; La Loge de Richmont; The Carravan; L’Homme et La Femme; Les Nains; The Friendly Visit; Just So in the North; Les Matadors; Le Vieux Garcon; La Maison de la Reine; The Sword Knott; L’Etourderie de Catos. Recorded: Opus One, n.n.

Solo Voice

A Collection of New Songs Composed by an African. n.p.: The Author, ca. 1769. Contents: The Complaint; Sweetest Bard; Anacreon Ode XIII; Thou Soft Flowing Avon; Kate of Aberdeen; Friendship Source of Joy.


About Sancho

Books and Monographs

Adams, Francis D. Three Black Writers in Eighteenth Century England. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing, 1971.

Ahuma, Samuel Richard Brew Attoh. Memoirs of West African Celebrities, with Special Reference to the Gold Coast. Liverpool: D. Marples, 1905.

Edwards, Paul Geoffrey. Unreconciled Strivings and Ironic Strategies: Three Afro-British Authors of the Georgian Era; Ignatius Sancho, Olau dah Equiano, Robert Wedderburn. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre of African Studies, 1992.

Edwards, Paul, and Polly Rewt. The Letters of Ignatius Sancho. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994.

Fleming, Beatrice J. Distinguished Negroes Abroad. Washington D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1946.

Jekyll, Joseph. Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African: To Which Are Prefixed Memoirs of His Life. London: Dawsons, 1783.

Ogude, S. E. Genius in Bondage: A Study of the Origins of African Literature in English. Ile-Ife, Nigeria: University of Ife Press, 1983.


Child, Lydia M. 1968. “Ignatius Sancho.” In The Freedman’s Book. Reprint New York: Arno Press: 1–12.

Wright, Josephine. “Early African Musicians in Britain.” In Under the Imperial Carpet: Essays in Black History 1780–1950, edited by Rainer Lotz and Ian Pegg, 14–24. Crawley, England,: Rabbit Press, 1986.

—. “Ignatius Sancho (1729–1780): African Composer in England.” Black Perspective in Music 7, no. 2 (1979): 133–167.

By Sancho

Ignatius Sancho (1729–1780), An Early African Composer in England: The Collected Editions of His Music in Facsimile, edited by Josephine R. B. Wright. Critical Studies on Black Life and Culture, vol. 3. New York: Garland Publishing, 1981.

New Light on the Life of Ignatius Sancho: Some Unpublished Letters. Princeton, N.J.: Photographic Services, Princeton University Library, 1989.

   Ignatius Sancho belonged to the very small group of blacks who composed and published music in Europe during the second half of the 18th century, music that is among the earliest evidence of black participation in European music. Unlike some other members of the group, however, most notably the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Sancho was not a professional composer but an amateur, a trained and gifted musician who nonetheless seems to have made music primarily at home or in other private settings. It is thus especially fortunate that Josephine R. B. Wright uncovered Sancho’s works and made them available for study. All too often, amateur musicians left no record of their activities, and the case of Sancho provides an unprecedented opportunity to observe an 18th-century black composer not on the public stage but in the private world of English middle- and upper-class social life.

Sancho’s musical experience probably began in the house of the Montagus, the family that educated him after he was brought to England from Guinea, West Africa, in the 1730s and then supported and employed him until 1773. All of his musical publications are dedicated to members of the family, and the works contained in them may originally have been written for performance in their circle. However, his correspondence shows his acquaintance with many other members of aristocratic and intellectual society, suggesting that he would also have had opportunities outside the Montagu home to perform or hear his own works and others like them. The letters also show that Sancho, like all well-educated amateurs, had many interests in addition to music. Among the most important were literature (he corresponded with Laurence Sterne) and especially theater, his love for which is evidenced not only by his foray into acting in the late 1750s but also by his choice of song texts from Shakespeare and the famous 18th-century actor and stage producer David Garrick, whom Sancho knew.

Sancho’s musical works are in many ways typical for an 18th-century amateur. Those that have been recovered are relatively few in number: six songs and 56 dances divided among three books. This suggests that he was writing for his own pleasure or that of his immediate circle; a professional composer’s works in this period would more typically have numbered in the hundreds or even thousands. His chosen genres likewise point toward the world of domestic entertainment. Songs, especially simple, vocally unchallenging examples, were standard fare in musical salons and similar venues. Dances were the traditional proving grounds for beginning composers and also provided accompaniment for actual social dancing. Sancho’s first (ca. 1767) and third (1779) collections both include instructions for dancing, and all three books are devoted mainly to the most popular dances of the era, most importantly minuets (in the first two books) and contradances (in the third). Stylistically, his works make use of the common musical language of the mid-18th century, characterized by well-articulated two- and four-measure phrases, an emphasis on tonic and dominant harmonies, and the use of characteristic dance rhythms, not only in the dances but also in many of the songs. To that extent, they resemble many other songs and dances by other 18th-century amateur composers.

In the end, however, Sancho cannot merely be considered a “typical” gifted amateur, nor would he have been seen as such in his own time. His musical and other accomplishments were all but unprecedented for a black man during this era in Europe, a fact that was not lost on Sancho and his contemporaries. Three of his four publications carry the legend “composed by an African,” a description that would have made it impossible simply to lump his compositions together with the thousands of others produced by white amateur musicians; and the fourth publication concludes with a dance entitled after a slave character from a contemporary play. Wright suggests that this was Sancho’s way of having “the last word.” By referring to his own origins as an orphaned slave, Sancho may have wanted to remind his audiences just how remarkable it was that he had become an accomplished composer and how distant his experience was from theirs.

   A Collection of New Songs (ca. 1769)

The thousands of songs composed in 18th-century England vary widely in style and scope from brief, folk-like “ballads,” often on anonymous pastoral texts, to lengthy, operatic settings of Shakespeare and other authors by leading composers such as Thomas Arne and William Boyce. The six songs in Sancho’s collection fall somewhere between these two extremes. His texts include a passage from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and two excerpts from an ode to Shakespeare by Garrick (which Arne had also set), choices that suggest relatively high artistic ambitions while also reflecting Sancho’s love for the theater.

At the same time, the remaining texts—as well as the length, form, and style of the songs themselves—are for the most part typical of the unpretentious ballad tradition. That is especially true of the last five songs in the set. They are all strophic (the same music is used for multiple stanzas of text) and musically almost naive in their simplicity. Each word or syllable is set to only one or a few notes so that there is no embellishment or ornamentation, and the melodies are typically centered around the notes of the tonic triad. Like most contemporary ballads, moreover, the melodies are generally divided into two halves, the first consisting of one or more phrases that cadence on the dominant harmony, the second, of additional phrases that return to the home (tonic) key. The two halves are generally separated by a brief interlude for the accompanying keyboard, and the melodies in their entirety are framed by an instrumental prelude and postlude. Taken together, these procedures all serve to offer the clearest possible articulation of the text, as the words are clearly audible and presented in short, well-articulated phrases that correspond with the grammar and rhyme patterns of the stanzas.

Rather than emphasize individual words in the texts, Sancho maintains an appropriate mood throughout each song, a mood that is generally established with the help of a characteristic dance rhythm. Thus “Sweetest Bard,” a joyful paean to Shakespeare taken from Garrick’s ode, is set to a sprightly jig, while “Thou Soft Flowing Avon,” Garrick’s description of the river Avon as an idyllic retreat, is treated as a calm, pastoral minuet. Within the vocal melodies, Sancho takes care to provide a singable contour and is especially effective in his treatment of melodic high points, generally reserved to provide climaxes near the end of each song. In “Kate of Aberdeen,” for instance, based on a typical anonymous ballad text in which a shepherd sings of love, the melody reaches its high point at the end of each stanza, where the shepherd sings Kate’s name. A similar example is found in the setting of a text by Anacreon, a Greek poet whose celebrations of wine and the good life were very popular among 18th-century English song composers. In the ode set by Sancho, each of the three stanzas builds to a climactic image which is in turn neatly articulated by the final, highest phrase of the melody.

The first of the six songs, on the Shakespeare text, “Take, oh take those lips away,” was originally a song-within-a-play, a reminiscence of lost love that is sung to a jilted lover at the beginning of Act IV of Measure for Measure. The setting is Sancho’s most ambitious. The text consists of only a single stanza and extends over roughly twice as much music as is devoted to the individual stanzas of the other songs. While the melody is still based on a two-part form, the phrasing and harmonic structure are more flexible and sophisticated than in the other songs. There is also greater activity in the accompanying keyboard part. In the other five songs, the right hand of the keyboard is given an independent melodic line only when the instrument plays alone (the right hand would otherwise have doubled the vocal line and/or filled in chords). Here, however, it plays as the voice is singing, creating a kind of dialogue from which the song derives considerable charm, especially in its opening phrases. As the voice sings a slow, halting line on the words “Take . . . those lips away/That so sweetly . . . were forsworn,” the keyboard adds a delicate counterpoint in quick, nearly continuous arpeggios or broken chords. As a result, the instrument sounds almost as if it were leading the voice through the text, coaxing the sad, reluctant singer to continue the story. After an interlude of arpeggios that articulates a cadence in the dominant, the character of the song changes. The voice first returns toward the tonic in a rising line that “paints” the words “and those eyes the break of day.” The progression toward the tonic is interrupted, however, by a surprising, dissonant phrase that forecasts the renewed melancholy of the final lines, “but my kisses bring again/Seals of love but seal’d in vain.” These are sung twice, the voice soaring up to its highest note on the repetition and then descending to reach a final, definitive cadence. A postlude of keyboard arpeggios serves to conclude the song by recalling its opening mood.

   Second Book of Minuets and Other Dances (ca. 1769)

Sancho’s second book of dances is much like his first (ca. 1767) insofar as it is comprised of a mixture of minuets and contradances and scored for harpsichord, violin, flute, mandolin, and, in some of the minuets, two French horns. Yet the second book is somewhat more ambitious than either its predecessor or Sancho’s later collection of contradances (1779): the minuets include his lengthiest and most complex efforts in the genre, and the remaining pieces include a gavotte, an air, and a quite remarkable hornpipe, none of which appear in either of the other books.

The pieces observe many of the familiar conventions of 18th-century dances. All fall into two halves, each of which is generally eight or 16 measures long. Each half is repeated, creating a binary form; and in some of the longer works the opening of the dance is recalled at the end of the second half, resulting in a “rounded” binary. The first half closes on the dominant or tonic, the second half on the tonic; and within each half, the phrases are invariably four or eight measures long. The textures are correspondingly straightforward. With the exception of the horns, the instruments are not given separate parts but rather play from two-stave keyboard notation. This means that the flute, violin, and mandolin would in all likelihood simply have doubled the melody, perhaps taking turns in order to provide variety. The horns also double the melody, sometimes harmonizing it in thirds or sixths or providing a background drone to support the harmony.

Perhaps the most interesting of the dances are two of the longer examples, the fifth minuet and the hornpipe. The minuet begins with an echo effect, in which a repeated, one-measure figure is marked alternately forte and piano. Then, after the repeat sign, a new figure enters in the relative minor. The minor mode is extremely rare in Sancho’s dances and is always used for special expressive purposes; this passage is marked dolce, and a minor passage elsewhere in this collection, “plaintive.” In this instance, a four-measure phrase in minor is first repeated and then transposed back to the tonic major, with a corresponding brightening of tonal color. There remain, however, several further gestures toward minor before the dance finally returns to the tonic major and a repetition of the opening measures.

The hornpipe is similar insofar as the music after the repeat sign first moves to the relative minor and then returns to the tonic for a repetition of the opening phrase. The most remarkable feature of this dance, however, is that it begins on the subdominant or fourth scale degree. On first hearing, this raises some question as to what the tonic is; while on the repeats, it continues to generate a subtle and attractive rhythmic ambiguity by making it difficult to know whether the “strong” downbeat coincides with the beginning of the first measure or with the arrival of the tonic harmony in the second. It is in details such as this that one can see Sancho’s mastery not only of the syntax but also of the wit and grace of mid–18th-century European musical style.


Sancho, Ignatius. Ignatius Sancho (1729–1780), An Early African Composer in England: The Collected Editions of His Music in Facsimile, edited by Josephine R. B. Wright. Critical Studies on Black Life and Culture, vol. 3. New York: Garland Publishing, 1981.

Wright, Josephine R. B. “Ignatius Sancho (1729–1780). African Composer in England.” Black Perspective in Music 7, no. 2 (1979):133–167.

Richard Will