His equal was never seen in fencing,
Charming musician, facile composer…
And in each he found his own style.
These words described Joseph Bologne in 1788, near the height of his dual athletic and musical careers, on the eve of the French Revolution. Decades after his death, he appeared as a nearly mythological figure in a biographical novel called Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, heralded as “this man of combat, of good fortunes and of sighs, this unique man.”
Bologne was born on the Caribbean island of Base-Terre in Guadeloupe to Nanon, an enslaved woman. His father was George Bologne, a French plantation owner, who acknowledged Joseph as his son and gave him the family name. Two years later, George was accused of murder and fled to France with Joseph and Nanon (he was later cleared of the crime). By his early teens, Joseph was a skilled fencer, studying with the famed master La Boëssieère and winning important matches. At 19, he was knighted and given the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
Bologne was also studying music, likely with the composer François-Joseph Gossec. In his 20s, he became concertmaster of the Concert des Amateurs, one of the first orchestras in Europe to offer a public concert series outside of a nobleman’s court. In short order, he made his solo debut with his own violin concertos, and became the orchestra’s musical director. Over the following decade, he published 12 concertos, 10 symphonies, and two sets of string quartets. He also wrote operas and commissioned and premiered Joseph Haydn’s “Paris” Symphonies.
In his 40s, Bologne’s world of French nobility ended in pools of blood and the monarchy was overthrown. Supporting the Republic, he led an all-Black cavalry unit and was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror before regaining his command. He returned to the violin, but after the Revolution, French music declined in the shadow of German Romanticism. Following Bologne’s death from an infection in 1799, his music was forgotten and then ignored for the better part of two centuries.
The 1970s brought renewed interest when Columbia Masterworks’ Black Composers Series dedicated its first LP to Bologne, and scholarly articles began to appear. More recently, as part of the growing acknowledgement of the contributions of Black classical musicians throughout history, his music has been regularly played in concert, and a new biopic titled Chevalier is screening at film festivals this fall.
While Haydn and Mozart may seem to be the nearest points of comparison when hearing Bologne, the musicologist Dominique-René de Lerma has pointed out important differences in their styles. “Saint-Georges’ music is totally French,” he wrote in The Black Perspective in Music. “It does everyone a great injustice to refer to Saint-Georges as a ‘black Mozart’ or a ‘black Haydn.’ What Saint-Georges had in common with these two, he had in common with other composers of his time from all over Europe. It is the thing he possessed that was different that matters! Saint-Georges’ music does not sound like that of Mozart or Haydn, who were Austrian composers and, therefore, from a different culture.”
This violin concerto was likely premiered by Bologne with the Concert des Amateurs, and was published around 1775 by Antoine Bailleux. The first movement begins with a mini-overture, the orchestra completing a main theme, a contrasting minor-key theme, and even a little coda before the soloist enters, elaborating on all these ideas. The second movement is heavy with longing, the orchestra pulsing in beats of twelve as the violin unspools a long melody into its highest register. The lively finale is a Rondeau, a form that returns to a fixed theme in between contrasting episodes. Look out for the sudden entry of peasant pipes and fiddles, crashing the elegant ambiance—perhaps a musical anticipation of events to come.