This week’s Classical in Conversation blog features an incredible figure in British history. He is not only the first black composer to be published in the European tradition, but also the first known black person to have voted in Britain. Keep reading to learn more about Ignatius Sancho’s incredible story.

How It Began

Born on a slave ship in the middle of the Atlantic, Sancho was later sold into slavery in the Spanish colony of New Grenada. After the death of both of his parents, he was brought to England where he spent the next 18 years as a slave to three sisters.

He eventually became a butler to the Duchess of Montagu, and it was his position here that would ultimately lead to his freedom from slavery. He formed a relationship with the Duke of Montagu, who would lend him books of music, poetry and fiction. When the Duchess passed away, Ignatius Sancho was given a yearly payment of £30 (in today’s currency that would equal about £7000) and a full years’ salary. This allowed him to set off and start his own business as a shopkeeper, selling products like tobacco, sugar and tea to the people of Mayfair, Westminster. He loved being able to socialise with his many friends and share his passions for music and literature.

Since he owned a property, he was legally able to vote in a general election and did so twice! He is the first known black Briton to ever have voted.

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Over the course of his life, Sancho became an important symbol for the African community in Britain, and we’re so thrilled to bring this historical story into the RSL Classical Piano and Violin syllabi.

Sancho's Music

You’ll first find Ignatius Sancho in the Grade 1 books, with his piece, “Le Douze de Décembre”. The piece was written as part of his collection, Minuets Cotillons & Country Dances, which includes 24 compositions in his Georgian style, and a mixture of titles in English and French.

This piece is the perfect C major study for the Grade 1 pianist. It’s a great opportunity to practise balance between the two hands, making sure to control those quaver passages and not let them run away from us! Don’t forget that this is a dance, so embrace that elegant and graceful sound, and be careful that it doesn’t sound rushed. Best of luck with this one!

You can also play "Le Douze de Décembre" as a Grade 2 violinist with RSL! We want to embrace the same energy which is best achieved by allowing some separation between bows and a brisk bowing action.

There's also an opportunity to channel this folk-dance energy in the RSL Classical Violin Grade 1 syllabus, with "The Sword Knott".

And secondly, you’ll find Sancho’s “Christmas Eve” in RSL Classical Piano Grade 2. This piece is full of twists and turns, with the rising and falling arpeggios that are typical of many lively folk dance melodies. For the teachers amongst you, this piece is a fantastic moment to lean into phrasing, and what that means for the character of a piece. The four bar phrases also make for a brilliant warm-up exercise. You could task your student with playing them both legato and staccato!

Overall, we’ll be looking for this piece to sound lively but steady in tempo, with a forward-moving feel to it. We want to hear both the light and the shade of this lovely tune!

If you’ve enjoyed learning about Ignatius Sancho today, we have plenty more where that came from. We’ve featured some of the other iconic black composers in our syllabus before, so why not check out the work of Valerie Capers, Zenobia Powell Perry, Scott Joplin and Alexis Ffrench while you’re here.