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More Famous Than Mozart: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges



In 18th century France, Joseph Bologne was an unrivaled superstar -- in modern times, he would easily be a household name. Not only a composer, conductor, and a virtuosic violinist who outshone Mozart in Paris, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges earned renown as the greatest swordsman in Europe, a Colonel in the French Revolution, and leader in the abolitionist movement. Until recently, however, Bologne's incredible talent and achievements had faded to near-obscurity. 

Bologne was born to an enslaved African-Guadeloupean mother and a French plantation owner father in 1745 on the island of Guadeloupe. The family moved to France when Joseph was a young child, and his father placed him in an elite private school in Paris. Notwithstanding the racist "Code Noir" that even prevented him from taking his father's suffix, "de Saint-Georges," Bologne studied alongside young aristocracy. Prominent teachers included the renowned master of arms, La Boëssière. The young swordsman excelled in fencing; at 17, receiving knighthood from Louis XV -- becoming Chevalier de Saint-Georges. 


Though the Chevalier distinguished himself in many pursuits, his musical career rose to extraordinary heights, including the Palace of Versailles. Little is known about his musical training, though he likely learned from composer François-Joseph Gossec. Bologne publicly debuted two violin concertos (Op. 2) as the soloist with Gossec's Concert des Amateurs in 1772, later succeeding Gossec as the orchestra's musical director. He later founded the Concert de la Loge Olympique, which survived through the beginning of the Revolution, and after which, Bologne briefly led the Cercle de l'Harmonie. 

His compositions spanned from violin concertos to operas, instrumental forms written between 1771 and 1779 comprising his oeuvre. Bologne contributed to the emerging Classical period with inventive styles. Bologne's symphonie concertantes, a blend of the Baroque concerto grosso and the Classical concerto, were some of the first in France to establish the genre. He wrote three sets of six works for string quartet, Six Quatours concertans. Bologne's three sonatas for keyboard and violin broke from the still-popular basso continuo Baroque style, and he looked ahead to the forming Classical period with textures and harmonies. 


Bologne's intricate violin pieces gained the admiration of Mozart, who quite likely copied the Chevalier's work. A passage from Mozart's Symphonie Concertante in E-flat (K. 364) closely follows Bologne's violin concerto (Op. 7, No. 1), written the previous year. At the height of his illustrious career, Bologne often performed for Queen Marie Antoinette, and across the Atlantic, President John Adams acknowledged him as "the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, shooting, fencing, dancing and music." 

But even exceptional talent and a high society upbringing did not protect the Chevalier from experiencing racism throughout his life. When he was considered a favorite to direct the Académie Royal de Musique, the foremost musical position in France, three of the Opera's prima donnas refused to be led by a person of mixed race. Their petition crushed Bologne's candidacy.

Posted in Classics. Tagged as Black composers, composer.

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