Joseph Antonia Emidy

1775 - 1835

Born in Guinea on West Coast of Africa - Buried in Kenwyn Church, Truro

Extract from Dr. Richard McGrady’s ‘An African in Cornwall’,  (Musical Times, November 1986).

 With thanks to The Hidden Routes, An African in Cornwall,  compiled by Galena Chester

 Time has drawn a kindly veil over many composers. But there are a few instances when the activities of a forgotten individual are so remarkable that a case must be made for them.  Joseph Antonia Emidy is one such figure.  Although the only traces of his activities are in historical records (for all his music seems to have disappeared), and although he led his professional life within a remote community —Cornwall — and made no wider impact, his story deserves to be told, not only for its inherent interest but also in the hope that its wider circulation might lead to the discovery of scores that could provide a fascinating insight into aspects of music of the early 19th century. 


The most important account of Emidy’s life is contained in the autobiography of the Cornish-born politician James Silk Buckingham.  Buckingham, reformist MP for Sheffield from 1832 and a fierce opponent of the slave trade, was born near Falmouth in 1786.   In a lively account of his youth he tells of a growing love of music,


finding it a most agreeable  recommendation in female society, of which I was always fond”


Playing the flute appeared to offer the quickest way of acquiring the necessary skills, and he engaged the services of the only teacher procurable at Falmouth’,  


“An African Negro, named Emidee, who was a general proficient in the art, 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.”


Buckingham lost contact with Emidy sometime after 1807, which explains his ignorance of the later stages of the composer’s life.  In fact, Emidy moved his home to Truro in the second decade of the century, probably because it offered a better center from which to operate as a professional musician. 


Emidy had been born in 1775 in Guinea on the west coast of Africa, and in 1787 sold into slavery to Portuguese traders who took him to Brazil and ultimately to Lisbon.  His slave master recognized a love of music in the boy and provided him with a violin and teacher; over three or four years his progress was sufficient for him to gain a place among the second violins of the Lisbon Opera.  One night in 1795 he was heard playing at a Lisbon Opera House performance by Captain Sir Edward Pellow  and was kidnapped by his command when leaving after the performnce.   Pellow had him impressed on his frigte HMS Indefatigable as replacement for a missing fiddle player.  In 1799 Emidy was given his discharge at Falmouth. 


When Emidy settled in Falmouth, in 1799, the cultural social life in Cornwall, as in most areas throughout the country, was centered on three principal activities the theatre, assemblies and balls and ‘harmonic societies’ of amateur musicians.  Both towns with which he was principally associated, Truro and Falmouth, had small, purpose-built theatres that served as a base for a professional company which divided its activities between these towns and toured other local communities. 


The theatre building in Truro also provided a home for the assembly, which met throughout the year and provided the principal focus for social life.   In almost every town there are records of similar organisations, usually meeting in a room at a local inn if no purpose-built accommodation was available.


Those towns which had a regular military or naval presence — and that includes both Truro and Falmouth in the anxious Napoleonic years — not only had a wider social mix to enliven the assemblies with the attendance of officers and their families but could also call upon the militia bands regularly to provide music for the balls.  Nevertheless, in spite of the popularity of the militia bands, Emidy managed to build up a wide group of contacts with the assemblies and his presence at the ball provided an attraction to the participants.


As well as work in Truro and Falmouth, he had a connection with the assemblies of Helston, Lostwithiel and Bodmin: his advertisement in the West Briton of 1st December 1820 gives some indication of the peripatetic nature of his work in an area where travel was not easy, as well as the range of services he offered to the gentry of Cornwall: ‘Violin, Tenor, Bass-Viol, Guitar, and Spanish Guitar, taught as usual; Balls and Assemblies attended; Harps tuned, and Piano-Fortes buffed, regulated and tuned, according to the directions of Messrs. Broadwood and Sons, in any part of the County.’


Balls were normally preceded by a concert, and here we find evidence of Emidy’s working with most of the harmonic societies which met regularly for more sophisticated musical pleasures.  Often, the amateurs met purely for private recreation, though the more ambitious gave performances to invited audiences, generally closely associated with the assemblies.  It is possible to piece together from occasional references some idea of the sort of music these groups performed.  We find mention of orchestral works by Haydn, Stamitz, Pleyel and, on one occasion, Beethoven, as well as lesser figures of the contemporary scene such as Johann Paul Martini , Eichner and Gyrowetz: the taste for the classical orchestral style appears to have been fashionable, though vocal selections from Handel also seem to have been perennially popular.


Apart from the inherent interest offered by Emidy’s story of survival from such traumatic beginnings, this documentation of a working musician in a remote community might appear to have little significance but for the fact that, throughout his career in England, Emidy continued to compose and introduce major works of his own in these provincial concerts.


An occasional new composition is mentioned in later records, indicating that the creative urge had not been entirely killed by the routine drudgery of work and travel necessary to earning a living or by the lack of appreciation for his work’s quality.  A ‘Concerto for the French Horn’, played by a member of the Royal Cornwall Band, was announced for a concert in Truro on 14 December 1821 and on 2 April 1828 the Gazette announced:


“We understand that Mr Emidy, the leader of our Philharmonic Society, has lately employed his talents in a rather navel manner for a professor of the violin, and has produced some Variations on the subject of a Grecian Aire for the pianoforte, which evince not only a correct taste but considerable judgment, as regards the nature of the latter instrument. The production has been submitted to the inspection of competent judges, and highly commended.  It is intended to publish it by subscription’


As with all the other compositions there is no later reference to performance nor indication that the Grecian Aire Variations were ever published.   Like all of Emidy’s compositions, these two works have completely disappeared: Joseph Emidy died at 24 April 1835, in his 61st year and was buried in Kenwyn churchyard Truro.  Both local papers carried a short obituary, the West Briton of 1st May recording after a brief biographical note:


“His talents as a musician were of the first order and he was enthusiastically devoted to the science.’


The Gazette, on 25 April, had carried a slightly longer notice of his death, which has some strangely similar wording:


“His talents may be said to have ranked under the first order while his enthusiastic devotedness to the science has rarely been exceeded.   As an orchestral composer his sinfonias may be mentioned as evincing not only deep musical research, but also those flights of genius which induce regret that his talents were not called into action in a more genial sphere than that in which he has moved’

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A Musical Club 1808

Anon,  Royal Institute of Cornwall,  (the only known representation of Joseph Antonia Emidy)

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Close up of Emidy