In July, The New York Times published an article by Marcos Balter about Joseph Bologne, an 18th-century polymath who had “his brilliant music and life diminished by a demeaning nickname.” That nickname was Black Mozart. It’s a moniker that hasn’t completely left Black music culture. But for this article, I’ll take a brief look at his life and achievements.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was born in Guadeloupe on Christmas Day in 1745 to George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a plantation owner, and Anne dite Nanon, an enslaved woman. His father took him to France when he was 7 and, during the French Revolution, he served as a colonel of the Légion St.-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe. But Joseph was best known for his contribution to classical music as the first known classical composer of African descent.
He was a virtuoso on the violin and composed many pieces for string quartets and operas. But a lot of his work was lost during the French Revolution, leading to a lot of misinformation about his life and career:
Few musicians have led a life as fascinating and multifaceted as Boulogne’s (sic). Recounting it, however, is an exercise in educated guesswork. What is known is scantily and contradictorily documented, when not purely anecdotal. To make matters worse, a 19th-century novel by Roger de Beauvoir, “Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges,” intertwined fact and fiction so seamlessly that many of its fabrications gradually found a place in Boulogne’s assumed biography.Excerpt from His Name Is Joseph Boulogne, Not ‘Black Mozart’
From what we do know, he was also an accomplished fencer—Louis XV named him “Chevalier de Saint-Georges” in honour of his skills, even if he wasn’t allowed to officially inherit his father’s title—and fought for the republic during the Revolution.
His musical training remains a mystery but he was invited to join François-Joseph Gossec’s orchestra for the Concert des Amateurs series, initially as a violinist and later as its concertmaster. This inspired a flurry of work starting in 1770. He received critical success as a composer for his two violin concertos (Op. 2), premiered at the Concert des Amateurs series in 1772.
He went onto succeed Gossec in 1773 and turned the Concert des Amateurs orchestra into the best in France and arguably the whole of Europe. Had a group of racist performers not expressed their concerns over “accepting orders from a mulatto”, he might have been awarded a directorship at the Académie Royal de Musique when he was invited to apply in 1775.
The “Black Mozart”
And the Black Mozart thing? Bologne and Mozart actually shared a home for a few months in 1778. Mozart had traveled to Paris and stayed with Count Sickingen as had Bologne. Although never confirmed, Mozart appeared to take inspiration from some of the French composer’s work, evident on Sinfonia concertante in E flat for violin and viola, K. 364. Gabriel Banat mentioned the similarities in “Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Man of Music and Gentleman-at-Arms: The Life and Times of an Eighteenth-Century Prodigy”, an 1990 article from Black Music Research Journal
Vol. 10, No. 2:
Mozart began to compose as many as six such works of which the magnificent K. 364 for violin and viola has survived in its authentic form […] Mozart mentions Concert des Amateurs among his connections to help obtain some engagements in Paris for Weber’s daughter Aloysia. It would be unlikely for him to have such a connection without being acquainted with the orchestra’s director, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
Interesting that Bologne was called the Black Mozart even though Mozart clearly took cues from the Frenchman.
Death and legacy
Although largely forgotten in favour of many of his white counterparts, he was highly regarded as his obituary showed:
The entire world knows St. George’s superiority in the art of fencing; he was no less superior in the dance, equitation, music, and without exception in all the physical exercises. He composed with infinite ease and natural grace: he had left us with a number of operas, that were only kept from achieving great success by the weakness of their librettos.Banat, G. (2006). The Chevalier de Saint-Georges : virtuoso of the sword and the bow. United Kingdom: Pendragon Press, xxv.
In the “coda” of Balter’s NYT piece, he reflected on the racism in Western classical music and how it allowed Bologne’s music to be obscured from plain sight:
It is a remarkable fact that his music has survived two centuries of neglect caused by the systemic racism that permeates the notion of a Western canon. Neither his omission from music-history textbooks — of the two most used in America, he gets a brief, vague mention in one and is absent from the other — nor a lack of advocacy from programmers, publishing houses and record labels have erased him completely.
Searchlight Pictures will fund and distribute an upcoming biopic about Bologne, written by Emmy-nominated and WGA Award-winner Stefani Robinson (Atlanta, What We Do in the Shadows). It will be directed by Stephen Williams (Lost, Watchmen, Westworld) with no release date as yet so watch this space!