Joseph Bologne, aka the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799) was a champion fencer, classical composer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris. Born in the French colony of Guadeloupe, he was the son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy married planter, and Anne “called” Nanon, his wife's Sengalese slave. Bologne was legally married to Elisabeth Mérican but acknowledged his son by Nanon and gave him his surname.
His father took him to France when he was young, and he was educated there, also becoming a skilled fencer. Some sources say his father could have been his first violin teacher. At the age of 13, young Joseph was enrolled in the Royal Polytechnic Academy of Weapons and Riding. His teacher was Nicolas Texier de la Boëssière, a master swordsman and a huge figure in the development of modern fencing.
In a year, Bologne began to compete against the best swordsmen of Europe. The most famous contest was against fencing master Alexandre Picard, who had publicly called him "La Boëssière’s mulatto." Even in the 18th century that was a heavily loaded term. With pro-slavery and abolitionist spectators looking on and wagering, Bologne won the match.
He also excelled at boxing, shooting, running and ice skating, making him the epitome of an 18th century accomplished gentleman. Legends abounded: he could swim across the Seine with an arm tied behind his back, he was the best marksman in all of Europe, and so on. John Adams, serving then as ambassador to France, wrote in his diary about Bologne: “He will hit the Button, any Button on the Coat or Waistcoat of the greatest Masters. He will hit a Crown Piece in the Air with a Pistoll [sic] Ball.”
Although Saint-George was ineligible, under French law, for any titles of nobility due to his African mother, due to his skill with the sword he was able to claim the “Office of Cavalier, Adviser to the King, Controller Ordinary of Wars” so then became known as “Chevalier de Saint-Georges.”
His musical skill was good enough to have leading composers of the day dedicate works to him: In 1764, 2 violin concertos by Antonio Lolli; in 1766, a set of six string trios by Gossec, and in 1770 we also find a concerto by Stamitz written for him. In 1769, the Parisian public was amazed to see Saint-Georges, the great fencer, playing as concertmaster in Gossec's new orchestra, Le Concert des Amateurs. In 1772 Saint-Georges created a sensation with his debut as a soloist, playing his first two violin concertos, Op. II, with Gossec conducting the orchestra.
Saint-Georges' first compositions, Op. 1, were a set of six string quartets, among the first in France. They were inspired by Haydn's earliest quartets. Saint-Georges wrote two more sets of six string quartets, three forte-piano and violin sonatas, a sonata for harp and flute, and six violin duos. He also wrote 14 violin concertos, two symphonies, six opéras comiques, a number of songs, and eight symphonie-concertantes, which at the time was a new, intrinsically Parisian genre. The music for three other known compositions were lost: a cello sonata, a concerto for clarinet, and one for bassoon.
Most of the instrumental works were composed over a short span of time, and they were published between 1771 and 1779. Around that time, he was serving in the court of Marie Antoinette as one of her music teachers (she was an accomplished spinet and harp player), and according to several accounts was “close” to her. French musical life revolved around the court, and Saint-Georges as both an accomplished musician and swordsman enjoyed the privileges of his status.
In 1778, Mozart went to Paris. As a young prodigy, he had previously met Marie Antoinette at the Hapsburg court of Maria Theresa, mother of the future Queen of France. Now, in hopes of establishing a career in France, he travelled with his mother to Paris. He met back up with the Baron von Grimm, who had been impressed by the young prodigy during his first visit to France back in 1763. The Baron had also used his influence to secure living quarters for the Chevalier Saint-Georges in the mansion next to his. When Mozart’s mother contracted typhoid and tragically passed away, Wolfgang temporarily moved in with the Baron, and was now neighbors with the Chevalier, sharing a common garden, a chapel, and a theater.
By all accounts, the Austrian composer hated France. He did not speak the language, could not understand why the Parisians were not raving about him, especially since he considered their level and taste in music making to be far inferior. He was unable to find any gainful employment, he was not paid for the music he did manage to write for them, and yet here was his neighbor, a black man eleven years his senior, who had the ear of the Queen, a stable position, and a good orchestra at his disposal.
There is an article that ascribes the villainous character of Monostatos in Mozart’s The Magic Flute— to his jealousy of Saint-Georges. This character is the lustful sidekick of an evil Queen. By the time of its premiere in 1791 the French Revolution was brewing; Marie Antoinette and her family were under house arrest. Years earlier Saint-Georges had been forced to leave his court positions, but had continued writing fairly successful operas and had even been dispatched to London on a complicated diplomatic mission. Mozart had returned to Austria and discovered his voice and success with opera. The libretto is attributed to many sources; is it possible that Mozart would have held on to his resentment for so long? We may never know the motives behind making the evil Monosantos a “blackamoor;” perhaps it was just the Austrian racism of that time asserting itself. Or perhaps Mozart fixated on a person who he so easily could have admired but instead associated with a terrible period in his life.
Saint-Georges went on to write a few more successful operas and continue serving the monarchy in various military and political ways. During the French Revolution, Saint-Georges served as a colonel of the Légion St.-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe. However, his command was fraught with difficulties, and fell victim to much political intrigue. While he fought with valor at every report, he grew tired of sending his men to slaughter. He eventually chose the Revolution over the doomed Queen and the society that had previously supported him. By the end of the Revolution, he had been imprisoned several times, and almost executed. He tried to regain his rank and regiment, but eventually was dismissed from the army and ordered to leave. For two years he was briefly engaged in a slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue, led by the former founder of the Legion- St. Georges. Barely escaping with his life, the Chevalier found himself living in shattered health in Paris, where he tried to re-establish an orchestra. “Towards the end of my life, I was particularly devoted to my violin,” he said. “Never before did I play it so well.” He died aged 53.