A historical forgotten story of the French music scene and racism.
Early Life of Chevalier de Saint George
He was born in 1745 Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint George to George Bologne de Saint George, a wealthy plantation owner and his black slave-mistress Nonon in Guadeloupe, French West Indies. His father realized early on that Joseph would need the education to have any chance in life due to his ethnicity. He decided to move to France, and at the age of seven, Joseph and his mother Nanon, with his father, sailed to France. They settled in St. Germain, a well-to-do area of Paris.
At this time, France had the Code Noir requiring blacks to register, which Joseph and his mother immediately complied. Nanon was said to have been the most beautiful woman in all of the West Indies, and Joseph inherited her good looks.
Chevalier Saint George's Skills
Here was a man so skilled in many different aspects of his life he was deemed a man of many skills and master of all of them. Joseph enrolled in the Royal Polytechnic Academy of Weapons and Riding at thirteen. This was no doubt where he gained his skill as a master fencer. He had a natural ability including the following:
- master fencer
- master horseman
- violin virtuoso
- a colonel in the French Revolution
For all that he would accomplish, the stigma of racism would follow him. The French described him as the "French Hercules," a "Rival of Apollo," and referred to him as "the most accomplished man of his age." Joseph took advantage of his exquisite looks and his effect on women. He was always well-mannered and a gentleman.
Concert des Amateurs
Saint-George began playing the violin in 1769 and giving piano lessons to Marie Antoinette but soon suspended the lessons as he was felt to be 'too close to the queen. Then, in 1792, Joseph took the audience by storm, rising to instant fame. Soon, he was appointed concertmaster until two singers refused to take orders from a 'Mulato.' King Louis then decided to name no one at all.
Chevalier Saint-George And Mozart
In 1778, Wolfgang Mademus Mozart and his mother arrived in Paris. Mozart soon realized the French music scene revolved around the Royal Court, and Joseph had the upper hand. Mozart loathed the French finding them arrogant. Mozart was highly jealous of Joseph and his status among the French. When Mozart wrote his famous Magic Flute, which was his last opera, it was believed that the inspiration for the black overseer, Monostatis was none other than Joseph.
It was unfortunate that racism again kept Joseph in the shadows of Mozart.
Chevalier And The French Revolution
It would be no surprise that Joseph, having suffered racism through his life yet taken advantage of his connections with the royals, would take sides against the royals. Joseph served as a colonel in the all-black legion called 'legion de Saint-George.' The group consisted of 1000 men, and among them was the father of Alexander Dumas, the future author of "The Three Musketeers." Joseph, the abolitionist, believed that slave trading was barbaric and eliminated.
After the revolution, Joseph was no longer the hero, and suddenly he was sentenced to prison. He remained there for almost two years but luckily avoided the guillotine. Released, he now found that his father had left his estate to his white daughter Elizabeth. He was now alone and broke, finding solace in his music.
Joseph fell into obscurity with critics accusing the French of deliberately ignoring and minimizing the importance of Saint-George because of his ethnic background. Joseph had no idea that after 200 years after his death, people worldwide would rediscover and listen to his music.
Joseph wrote twelve violin concertos, two symphonies, six operas published between 1771-1779. His most famous music was Symphony No. 1 in G major.
Today, there is a resurgence of his life and music. To Joseph, his music was everything.
Joseph died in 1779 at 53 in Paris and is buried at Saint Marguerite Church. Recently, a street was renamed Rue de Chevalier de Saint-George in his honor.