Opus 7 by Gordon Shadrach
The extraordinary life and music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
The earliest Black classical composer of Caribbean descent, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, lived life at the intersection of slavery and freedom.
Bologne was groomed to succeed at courtly endeavours yet ultimately led troops in the revolution that would topple that old-world order. He was a virtuoso violinist and composer who shaped the emerging classical style but whose earliest success was as Europe’s most renowned fencer. Forty-five years after his death, the astonishing and legendary details of Bologne’s life inspired the swashbuckling fictional character Porthos in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.
Joseph Bologne was born Christmas day 1745 on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, the son of French plantation owner George Bologne and Nanon, the enslaved woman who served Bologne’s wife. He was subject to the Code noir, France’s delegation of the Black race to inferiority.
George Bologne’s deep attachment to Nanon and their child was uncharacteristic of relations between masters and enslaved people at that time. Even more extraordinary was George’s willingness to support young Joseph as he would a son born out of his marriage.
In 1753, George took Nanon and Joseph to France. Young Joseph was a profoundly gifted athlete, excelling particularly at fencing. Among his early success was the defeat of a master-of-arms, Picard, who had taunted him with the epithet “upstart mulatto.”
Upon his graduation from the atelier of the Parisian master-of-arms La Boëssière at age 19, Bologne was dubbed Gendarme de la Garde du roi, giving him the title “chevalier,” to which he added his father’s noble title “de Saint-Georges.” At about this time his father returned to Guadeloupe, leaving Joseph in Paris with a handsome annuity. He quickly became a favourite of Parisian society, and virtually all accounts refer to his athletic, musical, and romantic exploits.
We know precious little of Joseph Bologne’s musical training, and most of that is conjecture. His earliest works beginning in 1764 are dedicated to both Gossec and Lolli, who may have taught him composition and violin respectively.
By 1769 he was a member, and soon became leader, of Gossec’s orchestra Concerts des Amateurs, making his debut as a virtuoso violin soloist in 1772. When his father died in 1774, his annuity came to an end, and music became his primary livelihood. He published numerous works, including several violin concertos, chamber music, symphonies, and works for the stage, and he made an early and significant contribution to the symphonie concertante.
He served in numerous musical leadership roles, but was denied the position of head of the Paris Opéra in 1776. A cabal of leading ladies petitioned Queen Marie Antoinette to block his appointment to deliver them—and this is a quote from their petition—from “degrading their honour and delicate conscience by having them submit to the orders of a mulatto.”
In 1781 he founded the Masonic Concerts de la Loge Olympique. In his role with the group, he commissioned and premiered the six so-called Paris symphonies of Joseph Haydn.
In the late 1780s Bologne became involved with a circle of Abolitionist activists in London and Paris. He joined the French National Guard in 1792, and commanded the Légion Saint-Georges, the first such unit of people of colour in Europe. After a brief but successful command of this unit, he became a victim of the Reign of Terror and languished in prison for 18 months.
In 1792, France’s Legislative Assembly granted full citizenship to all free men of colour in Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti). Bologne was deployed to the island in 1795 to enforce France’s law, putting him in the difficult position of defending landowners (mostly white, but also some of mixed race) against Black people who had revolted against their enslavement.
Demoralized and disheartened by the inter-racial violence he witnessed, he was at one point given up for dead, but miraculously returned to Paris two years later where he was again in demand as an opera leader. Bologne died June 9, 1799 in Paris of a malady characterized in the medical language of the time as an “ulcerated bladder.”
Orchestral works: Violin concertos, symphonies concertantes, and symphonies
The 18th century was still very much the age of the performer/composer, and in this Bologne was no exception. Virtuosos would write works that showcased their flashiest proficiencies, and accounts of his brilliant violin playing are stunningly represented in 16 violin concertos.
In particular, you can listen for a technique called “bariolage,” which involves passages of great dexterity in string crossings. There are also many examples of going from the very highest range of the instrument to the lowest with dramatic speed.
His most remarkable contributions are in his many symphonies concertantes, works that are somewhere between a symphony and a concerto for multiple instruments. In this quintessentially Parisian form, his early two-movement works did much to shape the genre and inspire others. The music is often traded between two soloists, creating a genuine musical conversation.
Indeed, perhaps the best-known symphonie concertante to audiences today, Mozart’s work for violin, viola, and orchestra (K. 364), pays a debt of respect to the older Bologne in the final Rondo by using an identical leaping cadential figure found in the last movement of Bologne’s Violin Concerto in A major Op. VII no. 1. The two composers lived in the same chateau in Paris for three months in 1778; Mozart’s sinfonia concertante was composed the following year.
In this playlist, hear a selection of Bologne’s orchestral works: press play to listen.
Bologne composed and published several different varieties of chamber music, to fill a huge popular demand of those who wanted to experience his music in their homes. This is 100 years before even the most rudimentary recorded sound, and if you wanted to hear music, you either played it yourself, or hired others to do it for you!
The sonatas for keyboard and violin were extremely popular in his lifetime, and you’ll hear a very playful conversation between the two instrumentalists.
His 18 published string quartets were amongst the earliest in Paris. The performance by Chineke! beautifully captures the contingent nature of performance in the 18th century: it was written for two violins, viola and cello, but is performed here by two violins, cello, and bass.
Bologne’s single Sonata for flute and harp is a beautiful and relatively recently discovered addition to the repertoire. The contrast between the two instruments highlights the beauty and simplicity of the melodies as presented by the flute.
His six sonatas for two violins represent perhaps the clearest examples of musical dialogue and you’ll hear each violinist enjoy opportunities to shine.
Lost to us is a sonata for cello, mentioned in a review in 1792.
In this playlist, hear a selection of Bologne’s chamber works: press play to listen.
Opera and vocal works
Opera was the most lucrative aspect of musical life in Europe during Bologne’s lifetime. When he was denied the directorship of the Paris Opera, it was not only one of the most blatant racially motivated acts he had suffered, but it was also costly in terms of prestige and potential future earnings.
Despite that serious setback, he composed six mostly comic operas. Sadly, the vast majority of this output is lost to us. What remains is L’amant anonyme (1780) in its entirety, and parts of Ernestine (1777), and La Partie du chasse (1778).
Ernestine is a tale of star-crossed lovers who must sacrifice for one another to gain their ultimate bliss; the Scena is a dramatic moment of self-reflection for the eponymous heroine in which she redoubles her faith for her beloved.
The plot of L’amant anonyme revolves around a suitor who, out of fear of rejection, refuses to reveal his identity to his beloved, while continually offering his loving attention in the form of gifts, notes, and anonymous deeds. The duo and trio capture very effectively the delights and tribulations of the situation. Very much in line with the taste of the time, ballet is interspersed in the action.
We also have a handful of separate arias and songs, and L’autre jour d’ombrage captures Bologne’s gift for touching and simple melody most effectively.
In this playlist, hear a selection of Bologne’s operatic works: press play to listen.
For further exploration of this extraordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, the best source is the thoroughly researched and well-written The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow by Gabriel Banat (2006, Pendragon Press, Hillsdale, NY).
Listen to our recording The Music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges here.