Cornwall

Joseph Emidy: From slave fiddler to classical violinist

Joseph Emidy Image copyright Royal Cornwall Museum
Image caption Joseph Emidy led the Truro Philharmonic Orchestra

The remarkable life of a former slave who became a pioneer of classical music has been commemorated.

The "genius" violinist Joseph Emidy, from West Africa, was enslaved for two long periods of his eventful life.

But having finally gained his freedom in 1799, Emidy became "Britain's first composer of the African diaspora".

His achievements were marked at Truro Cathedral on Sunday with the erection of a 'boss' - a painted wooden carving featuring a violin and a map of Africa.

On his death in 1835, The West Briton newspaper reported in Emidy's obituary: "As an orchestral composer, his sinfonias may be mentioned as evincing not only deep musical research, but also those flights of genius."

Emidy is thought to have been born in 1775 and was sold into slavery at the age of 12.

What is known of Emidy's life comes largely from the autobiography of one of his students, the anti-slavery politician James Silk Buckingham.

Emidy was first taken to work on plantations in Brazil before he was brought to Lisbon in Portugal by his "owner or master".

Image caption The 'boss' dedicated to Joseph Emidy will remain in Truro Cathedral

Silk Buckingham wrote: "Here he manifested such a love for music, that he was supplied with a violin and a teacher; and in the course of three or four years he became sufficiently proficient to be admitted as one of the second violins in the orchestra of the opera at Lisbon."

But Emidy's freedom to perform the music he loved was curtailed by the English naval commander, Sir Edward Pellew.

Sir Edward and his crew frequented the Lisbon Opera House while their ship, the Indefatigable, was undergoing repairs in 1795.

They were so impressed by Emidy's talents a press gang was sent to kidnap him to "furnish music for the sailors' dancing".

The Indefatigable set sail the next day and Emidy spent the next four years entertaining his shipmates with "hornpipes, jigs, and reels".

Image caption A plaque to mark the life of Joseph Emidy was installed in Falmouth in 2005

Emidy was finally discharged four years later in the port of Falmouth on 28 February 1799.

He married a local woman, Jenefer Hutchins, in 1802, started taking on music students and became involved with the the first of Truro's biennial concerts in 1804.

Silk Buckingham described him as "an exquisite violinist, a good composer, who led at all the concerts of the county, and who taught equally well the piano, violin, violoncello, clarionet and flute".

The programme for Truro's third biennial concert in 1808 included overtures by Handel and Martini and a violin concerto by Emidy himself.

Galina Chester, from the Joseph Emidy Foundation, said: "He rebuilt his life all over again in Truro step by step - teaching and then getting musicians together and gradually forming an orchestra."

Emidy's relative Beverley Wilson, from Ivybridge in Devon, attended the commemoration with her family.

She said : "My great-grandmother, who I knew and loved as a child, was his great-granddaughter. So he does feel almost within reach."

Image caption Beverley Wilson (far right) the great, great, great, great grand-daughter of Joseph Emidy met kora player Sona Jobarteh (centre)

Emidy had eight children and led the Truro Philharmonic Orchestra in performances at the Assembly Rooms from 1816 to 1826.

He died in 1835 and was buried at Kenwyn Church on the edge of the city.

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