An African musician in the Austrian Army in 1661

The musicologist Michael Lorenz has uncovered a fascinating snippet of Austrian military history – the story of Ferdinand Christian Ali, from Borna in Ethiopia, who was (literally) drummed into the Emperor’s service.

He was known as ‘His Roman Imperial Majesty’s hartschier and field army tympanist’ and he married ‘the honorable and virtuous maiden Elisabeth Kleybinger, legitimate daughter of the late Andreas Keyblinger, former citizen and baker in Steyr, and Christina his married wife.’

Read the full story here.

black musician rembrandt
Rembrandt van Rijn, Black Drummer and Commander, ca. 1638  (The British Museum, Oo,10.122)

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  • Mr. Lorenz writes: “I just wanted to show how in the seventeenth century the Austrian military was eager to make use of the skills of an African musician.” It’s difficult to overlook the irony in this observation — (probably intentional?) 375 years later the Vienna Philharmonic still hasn’t hired a fully Asian musician, or one with an Asian family name, even though about a third of the student body at Vienna’s University of Music for the last 50 years has been Asian. Traditionally, the orchestra has felt that such individuals would destroy the ensembles image of Austrian authenticity. Let’s hope the orchestra will soon leave behind such archaic notions.

    • There seems to be a difference between playing the timpany in a symphony orchestra and drumming the drums during a military battle.

    • The moment the Viennese population as a whole is for 90% made-up of Asians, Africans, Arabs and Pakistani, the typical Viennese character of the VPO will no doubt reflect this demographic change.

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