Joseph Bologne, better known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges or simply Saint-Georges, is the first known composer of African descent in the tradition of European classical music. He was famous as a virtuoso violinist, conductor and composer. Perhaps the most popular musicians of his day, many composers created violin works with Saint-Georges as their soloist. He also comissioned and directed works that included Franz Joseph Haydn's "Paris" symphonies. His music is practically unknown today, but in his day he was one of the most famous and innovative musicians alive. He was also a fencing champion, equestrian and swimmer. His life has often been the subject of overt racial controversy. He survived two assassination attempts. In his later years, he abandoned the aristocratic world of his education to fight for revolutionary ideals, and he was one of the first supporters of racial equality in France.
At a time when colonial slavery was the norm, Joseph Bologne was not only free but also an aristocrat, the illegitimate son of a wealthy White plantation owner, George Bologne, and a Guadeloupe enslaved woman of African descent, Nanon. Young Joseph received an exemplary education, attending Tessier de La Boëssière’s famed Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation and studying music. He was a true savant, a Jack of all trades and Master of them all. His exploits of swimming, horseback riding, dancing, shooting, boxing and especially fencing are well-documented. He became literally a Superman of his time.
Under the patronage of his father, young Joseph received an exemplary education, befitting members of the French nobility, attending Tessier de La Boëssière’s famed Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation. In addition to fencing and fencing, his studies included literature, science, horse riding, marksmanship and music. The young Joseph Bologne was tall, dark and handsome and with his charming demenor he was quickly found ingratiated by the French aristocracy.
In music, Saint-Georges was an exceptional student. It is believed that he studied the violin with the great French virtuosos, Jean-Marie Leclair and others. At the end of the 1760s, he became the recipient of a dedication by François-Joseph Gossec, the composer at the center of Parisian concert life. In 1769, Saint-Georges joined an orchestra called Le Concert des Amateurs, conducted by Gossec, as first violin, and in 1773, Saint-Georges became director of the group.
The status of Saint George in French society was ambivalent. Religious leaders agitate for the end of slavery, and King Louis XVI himself was opposed to the practice. But interracial marriages were prohibited (Saint George was never able to marry), and the belief in the genetic inferiority of Africans was widespread. Throughout his sporting and musical exploits, Saint-Georges became famous. The word even reached America and President John Adams proclaimed him "the most accomplished man in Europe." But there was always a hint of racial controversy surrounding his reputation. Saint-Georges had powerful donors who appreciated his talents, notably Queen Marie-Antoinette. But when he was considered for the prestigious post of director of the Paris Opera in 1775, two of the main sopranos of the company protested against the queen, claiming that "their honor and the delicacy of their conscience prevented them from being subjected to the orders of a mulatto. "
Nevertheless, Saint-Georges was a major star in Paris in the 1770s. In 1772, he had written several violin concertos for his own use as a performer; lyrical pieces of ambitious dimensions. He composed operas, symphonies, concert symphonies, concertos and innovative string quartets and these works influenced other composers of the time such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
One of the most famous characters in the French capital, Saint-Georges has had several nicknames. One was "The Black Mozart", or the Black Mozart; on concert posters advertising Mozart's and St. George's music, the two have often received the same rating. Another was Le Don Juan Noir, Don Juan noir, but it is not known if this part of Saint George's reputation was exaggerated. What was clear was that he aroused resentment in certain circles.
After the disbanding of the Concert des Amateurs, Saint-Georges founded a new group called the Concert de la Loge Olympique in 1781. He commissioned and conducted the first performances in 1787 of the six "Paris Symphonies" of Franz Joseph Haydn, widely considered the greatest composer in Europe at the time. As a composer he had much success with his opera The girl-boy also an opera for children, Aline et Dupré or Le Marchand des marrone.
In England, Saint-Georges became involved in the country's growing anti-slavery movement and founded a similar French group called the Society of Black Friends. Saint-Georges became the first French black mason, reaching the 33rd rank.
Much of the last decade of Saint-Georges' life was shaped by the French Revolution and its consequences. He sympathized with the democratic objectives of the revolution and, living in the city of Lille, he became captain of the national guard. However, his close ties to the fallen French court were also the object of suspicion among the revolutionary leaders. In the 1790s, Saint-Georges joined a group of black Frenchmen who hoped to form a new volunteer corps for combat. He became a colonel in the new force, and another measure of his fame was that he was popularly known as the Legion of Saint George.
Saint-Georges and his regiment saw heavy action, and Saint-Georges was responsible for the victory over the Austrians in Lille. He also played a key role in thwarting the so-called treason of Dumouriez, a plot by a renegade French officer, General Dumouriez, to take over the city and was hailed as a hero. One of the deputies of the black regiment of Saint-Georges, Alexandre Dumas (Sr.), and it is said that Alexandre Dumas (Jr., the author) based his famous character d'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers on Saint-Georges.
The last years of Saint George's life were not happy. He returned to the Caribbean for several years in the 1790s and was deeply disillusioned by the Black War on the island of Santo Domingo, when the slave rebellions broke out. Back in France, he became the director of a new orchestra called Le Cercle de l'Harmonie. Its fame was always such that the orchestra attracted large crowds. Saint George contracted a bladder infection and died on June 10, 1799. Slavery, which had been abolished in 1794, was re-imposed by Napoleon Bonaparte and fighting intensified in the Caribbean. Saint-Georges and its music have been removed from orchestral repertoires and mainly history books, so as not to be rediscovered for nearly 200 years.
December 25, 1745 - Birth of Joseph Bologne in La Guadeloupe, son of Nanon, born on the island around 1723 and of Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges (1711-1774).
December 1747 - Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges quickly leaves Basse-Terre after a duel in which he killed his adversary.
May 1748 - Georges de Bologne is sentenced to death in absentia, at the confiscation of all his property and hanged in effigy on the Place de Basse-Terre.
1750 - Georges de Bologne returns to Guadeloupe with Nanon and Joseph after a two-year stay in Angoulême with his brother Pierre.
1758 - Before leaving for La Guadeloupe, Georges de Bologne placed his son in boarding school with Nicolas Texier la Boëssière - a man of letters and an excellent master of arms - who was to coordinate the studies of Joseph, then thirteen years old.
1758 - 1764 - Stay with the master of arms La Boëssière: Saint-Georges follows courses in letters and music. He studies the violin and excels in all body exercises: dancing, horse riding, skating, swimming and especially fencing.
May 10, 1763 M. de Bologne purchases for his son an office of "Conseiller du Roy, Ordinary Controller of Wars" which entitles him to the title of squire.
July 1, 1764 - Joseph de Saint-Georges, squire, is entered in the registers of the gendarmes of the King's guard.
1769 - Saint-Georges becomes the first violin of the Concert des Amateurs, one of the best orchestras in Europe.
1773 - He dedicates his first work, The Six String Quartets, opus 1, to Monsignor the Prince of Robecq, his protector. He succeeds Gossec at the head of the Concert des Amateurs.
1775 - Candidate to direct the Royal Academy of Music, he is ousted when two singers, Sophie Arnould and Rosalie Levasseur, as well as a dancer, Marie-Madeleine Guimard, address a placet to the queen to "represent to Her Majesty that their honor and the delicacy of their conscience would never allow them to be subjected to the orders of a mulatto ”.
1777 - Saint-Georges becomes the director of Madame la Marquise de Montesson's theater and the master of ceremonies in her living room.
1773 - 1784 - It was during this period that he composed most of his works: concertos, symphonies, concertante symphonies and sonatas, engraved by the best editors of the time. He wrote a hundred "Romances", poems sung on the theme of love.
1777 - His first opera, Ernestine, presented before the Queen at the Théâtre des Italiens, failed. However, if the music of Saint-Georges is appreciated, on the other hand the libretto written by Choderlos de Laclos is considered tasteless.
1780 - Saint-Georges presents L’Amant Anonyme, one of the seven operas he composed, but the only one that has survived.
1781 - The Concert des Amateurs ceases its activities.
1782 - Creation by Gossec of the Concert of the Olympic Society, one of the foundations of the Grand Orient of France whose Grand Master is the future Philippe-Egalité.
1785 - Saint-Georges, in the name of La Société Olympique, commissions six symphonies from Joseph Haydn, known as the Parisian Symphonies.
1787 - He conducts the orchestra which plays these Parisian Symphonies for the first time.
April 9, 1787 - St. George crosses the line at Carlton House with the Knight of Eon in the presence of the Prince of Wales, the future George IV.
1789 -1791 - Saint-Georges joined the National Guard with the rank of captain and moved to Lille. He gives several concerts in this city.
On September 7, 1792, he became colonel of the Free Legion of the Americans and the South, partly made up of Afro-West Indians. This regiment fights against the Austrians.
May 1793 - Unjustly accused of embezzlement and suspected of royalist sympathies Saint-Georges appears before the Revolutionary Court.
September 1793 - Saint-Georges is removed from his command and imprisoned at the Houdainville (Oise) prison for a year.
October 1795 he was definitively dismissed from the army.
1797 - He directs The Circle of Harmony, established at the Royal Palace.
From 1795 to 1797, Saint-Georges disappeared from Parisian circles. Several biographers of the Chevalier affirm that during this period, he stayed in Santo Domingo where he met Toussaint Louverture. However, Saint George’s stay in Santo Domingo is a source of uncertainty.
June 10, 1799 - Death of Saint-Georges in Paris. He is buried in the "Temple of Liberty and Equality" formerly called The Church of Saint Margaret.