Joseph Bologne - The Chevalier De Saint-Georges ‘The Black Mozart’ (1745-1799)
Musically Saint-George was considered the “King of Pop” of his age;
Militarily he helped prevent what could have been the early collapse of the French Revolution. The vicissitudes of his journey are dramatic: from a young outsider in Paris to the dizzying heights of superstardom in pre-Revolutionary France, to an utterly tragic end.
In his lifetime Saint George was an elite musketeer of the King’s Horse Guard; a master-swordsman and Europe’s fencing champion;
A composer, violin impresario, and opera director that influenced Mozart;
Queen Marie-Antoinette’s music teacher and confidant; a playboy whose inner circle included the author of Valmont;
A military hero who championed the French Revolution.
That Saint-George was all of these in an age when slavery was endemic and white superiority was dogma, is beyond extraordinary and the height of irony.
Known possibly as being the “king of pop for his age”, Charles Pettaway music professor of Lincoln University, sums up Bologne as being ‘perhaps the most unjustly forgotten composer of the classical period. In his day, he was known as much for his symphonies as his swordsmanship, as much for his violin virtuosity as his trendsetting dress, and as much for his equestrian skills as his many romantic dalliances. In fact, only one thing kept him from attaining the uppermost heights of his profession and immediately securing his place in music history—he was, in the parlance of his era, a mulatto’.
Despite his Herculean accomplishments, Saint George -a man whose company was once fought over by royalty and great aristocrats- died alone, unmarried and destitute in 1799. The tragedy deepened: instead of being celebrated, in 1802 after the reinstitution of slavery in France by Napoleon, Saint-George’s music was banned, and many of his scores were destroyed. Yet, Saint-George lives. Like a Phoenix, two centuries later, the indomitable Chevalier has risen from the ashes as music lovers and historians have rediscovered him. In February 2002, the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe renamed a street in the memory of the Chevalier de Saint-George, restoring his stature to one of a legendary statesman
Born on Christmas day, 1745, on the French-Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe. His mother was a young Senegalese Wolof slave of remarkable beauty named Nanon. Joseph’s father, George de Bologne Saint-George, was a wealthy sugar plantation owner and a former “Gentleman in the King’s Chamber” in the court of Louis XVI, King of France.
Bologne was remarkably dedicated to his mistress and their son. Defying the Code Noir—a royal decree designed to define the conditions of slavery in the French colonies—he treated Saint-Georges as a member of his family. And, although little is known about Saint-Georges’s early years, it is easy to imagine him growing up a relatively privileged child, spending most of his time running, swimming, and generally frolicking through Guadeloupe’s paradisial landscapes. But Bologne wanted a better life for his son than the colonies could offer.
Life in Paris
In 1753, Saint-Georges’s father took him to Paris, where he received an education in the gentlemanly arts of fencing, music, and manners. After completing his studies, Saint-Georges was made a Gendarme de la Garde du Roi and introduced to the frothy upper classes of French society. He danced in glittering ballrooms, conversed in delicately appointed parlors, attended shows at opulent concert halls, and was rumored to frequent a number of ladies’ boudoirs. “He loved the ladies!” says Pettaway. “And the ladies loved him!” And who could blame them? He was handsome, athletic, well connected. And, of course, there was his music. Only about a third of his compositions have survived the last two hundred years, but those that have, says Pettaway, are “certainly on par with the works of Mozart and Haydn.”
Saint-George received the tutoring appropriate for a young member of the French nobility, attending a boarding school run by a famous swordsman named La Boëssière. Besides fencing and swordsmanship, his studies included literature, the sciences, and horseback riding. The teacher became the first of several observers to write admiringly of Saint-George’s prowess with the sword. Saint-George was tall, handsome, and gracious, and he quickly found his way into the halls of the French aristocracy. In 1765 a fencer named Picard insulted Saint-George and challenged him to a duel. Saint-George at first refused, but his father promised him a new carriage if he fought and won. At the duel in the city of Rouen, Saint-George quickly emerged the victor. He suffered his first defeat the following year at the hands of the famed Italian fencer Giuseppe Gianfaldoni, who praised Saint-George and said that he would soon be the best fencer on the European continent.
In music, too, Saint-George was a standout student. Several of France’s leading composers had benefited from the elder Saint-George’s patronage in the past, and young Saint-George benefited from their musical attentions. He is thought to have studied the violin with one of the great French virtuosi, Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder, and he mastered the harpsichord (an ancestor of the piano) as well. By the late 1760s he had become the recipient of a dedication from François-Joseph Gossec, the composer at the center of Parisian concert life. In 1769 Saint-George joined an orchestra called Le Concert des Amateurs, directed by Gossec, as first violinist, and in 1773, when Gossec moved on to a different conducting post, Saint-George became the group’s director.
Even as he notched these successes, Saint-George’s status in French society was an ambivalent one. Religious leaders were agitating for the end of slavery, and King Louis XVI himself was opposed to the practice. But interracial marriages were forbidden (Saint-George was never able to marry), and belief in the genetic inferiority of Africans was widespread. As word of his athletic and musical exploits spread, Saint-George became famous. Word even reached America of how he could swim across the Seine River using only one arm or shoot at and hit a coin thrown into the air, and he was something of a fashion trendsetter as well. But there was always an undercurrent of racial controversy surrounding his reputation. Saint-George had powerful backers who appreciated his talents, including Queen Marie Antoinette (to whom he was unusually close).
He and François-Joseph Gossec were among the first French composers to write music in an important new genre of Austrian origin—the string quartet.
He acted as the agent in commissioning the six symphonies composed by Joseph Haydn between 1785 and 1786 known today as the “Paris Symphonies”; these symphonies were performed under the baton of Mr. Boulogne by the orchestra Concert des Amateurs.
Mozart, was still a teenager scouring Europe for steady work when Saint-Georges’s musical career was at its peak, is thought to have “quoted” a melodic line from one of Saint-Georges’s violin concertos in his Symphonie Concertante in E-flat Major. Mozart also based a passage in his ballet score Les petits riens (The Little Nothings) on one of Saint-George’s melodies
Other composers offered more explicit compliments to Saint-Georges’s talents: François-Joseph Gossec, Carl Stamitz, and Antonio Lolli each dedicated works to him.
Despite his renown, Saint-Georges was still vulnerable to racial prejudice. Perhaps the most flagrant and dispiriting instance occurred in 1776 when he was nominated to head the prestigious Paris Opéra, only to have his candidacy challenged by a group of divas who argued that they could not be expected to, as they put it, “submit to the orders of a mulatto.” Louis XVI had approved the appointment, says Pettaway, but the divas’ objections won out and Saint-Georges did not get the coveted directorship.
Later Life and the French revolution When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, the democratic ideals of the revolution—liberté, égalité, fraternité—appealed to the composer, who under the Ancient Régime “never knew when the ugly face of racism would present itself again,” . He joined the National Guard at Lille at 1789, and a year later was selected to lead one thousand black soldiers charged with defending the ongoing revolution. But service to the revolution, it turned out, was no guarantee against the sweeping violence of la Terreur. The revolutionaries regarded anyone with ties to the aristocracy with suspicion, and Saint-Georges, who had been a guard for Louis XV and conducted Haydn’s Paris Symphonies before Marie Antoinette, was no exception. Brought in on trumped-up charges in 1793, he spent nearly a year in prison. Five years later, at about the age of fifty-five, he died in Paris, destitute, alone, and all but forgotten. Saint-Georges’s music suffered the ill effects of the Revolution no less than his person. Many of his manuscripts were destroyed during the early years of unrest and, later, under Napoleon’s government, performances of those few of his works that did survive were banned. Only recently, through the work of scholars and musicians such as Pettaway, has the music of Saint-Georges begun to reclaim audiences as it once so ably captured.
Although he was gifted, his inborn talents were magnified by his relentless effort, permitting him not only to be better, but above all to overcome the racial barrier which put before him in a time period when slavery was endemic and white superiority was dogma.