Bridgetower – Black Musicians and British Culture, 1807-2007

Bridgetower – Black Musicians and British Culture, 1807-2007

Gresham College
2007-07-02

Mike Phillips, Professor of Music
Gresham College

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, the son of an Abyssinian slave, was hailed as a musical prodigy in the eighteenth century. Taught by Haydn, his appearance at the court in Windsor to play in front of George III led to his subsequent ‘adoption’ by the Prince Regent. Friends with Beethoven—Bridgetower was the original dedicatee of the Kreutzer Sonata and they gave the first performance together—his life offers a powerful symbolism for the creation and establishment of a black British community which has its roots in the 18th century importation and migration of slaves and ex-slaves.

Professor Mike Phillips is the librettist for the newly-commissioned opera, Bridgetower – A Fable of 1807, to be given its premier as a part of the City of London Festival on the 5th of July. He will be discussing the role of black musicians in British culture in the two hundred years since the Abolition of the Slave Trade act.

I must begin by making it clear that I am not an academic researcher or an expert on slavery or an expert on the culture and customs of the Caribbean or Africa, and I have not spent many years in the British Library digging up obscure facts about this topic.  So I am not going to get into arcane disputes about the precise number of black musicians who lived in Southwark or how often they did their laundry!  But I have read a considerable amount about the topic.  I am a novelist and a curator and I have written an exhausting number of words about the history of black people in Britain.  This is not a talk about urban rioting or reggae or calypso or gospel music or jazz, although these forms dominate the experience of recent years.  I am telling you this partly because I am going to end at the end of the 19th Century, because I only have an hour, and if I got on to the 20th Century, I would be here all night!  But in fact, because of the subject of the new opera Bridgetower, a Fable of 1807, and because in general this part of the City of London Festival has focused on the 18th Century and the early 19th Century, I will be dealing roughly with those years.

The other point is that, in general, we tend to talk about black people in Britain, or about the multiracial nature of the population, as if it was an exclusively 20th Century phenomenon.  We talk about the respective cultures as if they existed behind barriers, and we talk as if the colour of people’s skins defines their cultural prospects and abilities, a tendency which is an exact match for the strictures of 18th Century racial science, with its appalling attempts to categorise human beings in line with a preordained network of characteristics.

Even now, in this country, young black musicians still face a series of nudges in the direction of what everyone will describe as ‘their culture’, meaning steel bands and rapping.  Young black musicians who lean towards classical forms will be more or less guaranteed a difficult time—it would be easier if they wanted to do percussion.  Historically, that has meant that, by and large, black musicians in Europe have been written out of the narrative of the very landscape that they helped to shape, and we find ourselves obliged to rediscover figures like the Chevalier de Saint-George or Samuel Coleridge-Taylor—people who were household names in their own time.

In that context, one of the most illuminating and reassuring aspects of looking at the lives of black cultural figures in Britain and Europe is that if you go back between the 16th Century and the 20th Century, you encounter black artists, poets, novelists and musicians who had no problems nor inhibitions in engaging in the cultural environment in which they found themselves.  In the process, they tended to affect the culture in which they lived in various specific ways.

I mentioned the 19th Century, but as far back as 1505 we have an African drummer working for James IV in Edinburgh, arranging a dance with dancers in black and white costumes for the Shrove Tuesday festivities.  Black musicians are repeatedly mentioned in pageants, fairs and at least one tournament from the 16th Century onwards.

If you come to the 18th Century, they’re relatively well-known—black musicians like Cato, who ended up as a head gamekeeper to the Prince of Wales around about 1740, and who was reputed to blow the best French horn and trumpet in his time.  In the 18th Century, Londoners were already dancing in what were called black hops, where 12 pence would get you admission…

…But I will go on to talk about George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower.  Bridgetower is an interesting person, not simply because he was born in the Esterhazy household; not simply because he was black; not because he was a child protĂ©gĂ©, but all those things together, at the time when he arrived in Britain and during his career, had a particular kind of significance…

Read the lecture here.
Download the video (very large! 330 MB).
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