Ignatius Sancho, in an engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi after a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough. From the 1802 edition of the “Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African.”

“The Black British composer, writer, butler, and shopkeeper Ignatius Sancho (ca. 1729–1780) subtly but unmistakably inscribed anti-racist messages in his music,” writes Rebecca Cypess in last Monday’s (2/27) Early Music America magazine. “Reportedly born into slavery and orphaned as a young boy, Sancho grew up in the London home of three sisters who denied him a formal education. By 1749, he was working for Lord Montagu, an advocate of Black social advancement through education … He became an accomplished writer, affiliating himself with the sentimental literary style … of the British novelist and preacher Laurence Sterne. Sancho achieved fame in 1775, after the publication of his correspondence with Sterne, in which he implored Sterne to write an episode denouncing the international slave trade in his serial novel Tristram Shandy…. Between 1767 and 1779 [Sancho] is known to have published one book of songs and four books of instrumental dance pieces…. There were few socially acceptable ways for an 18th-century Black man to speak publicly about racism or about Black achievement. Sancho found strikingly successful ways to do so, and his music is a reminder of the Black presence in Western musical traditions.”