The enslaved virtuoso

Thomas Wiggins, born blind and enslaved in Georgia in 1849, was a musical prodigy, able to play any piece on the piano after hearing it just once. By the 1880s, he reputedly had 7,000 pieces in his repertory.

Sold at age 10 to an impresario who billed him as “Blind Tom, Eighth Wonder of the World,” Wiggins became one of the most popular concert performers in 19th-century America. A top attraction in Richmond and other Southern cities in the 1860s, he subsequently toured widely in the US and Europe. Estranged from his post-emancipation handlers, he quit concert life around 1890 and died in obscurity in 1908.

Wiggins composed a number of memorable solo-piano works, some of them generations ahead of their time in compositional technique.

The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini writes about pianist Jeremy Denk’s discovery of Wiggins’ music. Included with the article are John Davis’ 1999 recordings of 14 of Wiggins’ solo-piano works – the disc that sparked modern-day interest in his music – and a video from the Caramoor Festival, in which Denk and composer George Lewis discuss this remarkable figure in American musical history and Denk plays Wiggins’ extraordinary tone poem “The Battle of Manassas:”

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