Sunday, April 11, 2021 "Work of slavery-era composer gets new life from Handel and Haydn Society" - Jonathan Woody's version of Sancho's music streams 4/18 & 4/20

Jonathan Woody
(Keith Race Design, Photo Courtesy of Handel and Haydn Society)

Ignatius Sancho: An African Man of Letters

Reyahn King et al.
National Portrait Gallery of the U.K. (1997)

April 11, 2021

When the Handel and Haydn Society began in 1815, America was still four decades away from abolishing slavery. H+H would play concerts to support the Union Army, celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and mourn the death of Abraham Lincoln. But H+H’s upcoming world premiere of a newly commissioned work by composer Jonathan Woody marks a profound milestone.

“The source material (for the commission) came from a formerly enslaved Black man, and I have a personal connection to that as a descendant of enslaved people in the United States,” Woody told the Herald. “It’s important to tell this story on a stage like Handel and Haydn’s stage.”

“Handel and Haydn was founded in 1815 in a United States that was still in the practice of enslaving Black bodies,” he added ahead of the April 18 and April 20 streaming concert. “For an organization to have lived that long and to find itself in the 21st century programming work by a living Black composer based on the work by a Black composer from the time of slavery, I think there is something special about that and important about that. I wish it had happened sooner, but I’m glad it’s happening now.”

Woody, who is also an in-demand soloist as a singer, composed his commission, Suite for String Orchestra, based on works by Charles Ignatius Sancho (1729–1780). Born on a ship carrying enslaved people, Sancho was sold into slavery in a Spanish colony in South America. As an adult, Sancho lived in England as a free man, becoming an abolitionist, composer and business owner, and is considered the first Black man to vote in a British election and the first person of African descent to publish classical music.

“I find his life very fascinating, especially the fact that he was the first Black man to have voting rights in a British parliamentary election because he was a property owner,” Woody said. “He made history for something as mundane and quotidian as owning a bookshop.”

Sancho’s dynamic achievements extended to music, but as a composer he left behind no great opuses, no grand symphonies or operas. This made turning his pieces into something fitting for H+H a challenge, a welcome one, for Woody.


For details on this streaming concert, go to

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