Joseph Boulogne, known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was one of the most popular men in 18th century Europe.
Saint-Georges was a champion fencer, military officer, composer, virtuoso violinist and conductor of a leading Paris symphony of the time. He was also black.
His music is often compared to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s, which is how he became known as the “Black Mozart.”
But the comparison between the two composers is off, says Bill Barclay, director of music at Shakespeare’s Globe. “Chevalier was unfairly called the ‘Black Mozart,’ it should really be in many cases Mozart who should be called the ‘White Chevalier,’ ” Barclay says.
Mozart happened to live under Saint-Georges’ roof in 1778 during some of his darkest days, Barclay explains.
“The Chevalier, this artist of color, has all the power and panache and aplomb that Parisian society can offer,” he says, “And Mozart is the one who needs his help.”
Despite his vast array of talents, Saint-Georges remains in the shadows of Mozart. “Because of his race, he was unable to marry into his class or have children so his legacy is left to the dustbins of history,” he says.
Barclay decided to change that. He tells Saint-Georges’ “lost” story in his musical production at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts.
“I think we’re in a cultural moment where we’d need to hear from minority artists. We need to hear the voices,” he says. “We need to understand their stories and we need to celebrate their unique contributions to historical and musical culture, the history of which seems to be unfairly predominantly white.”
On why Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ music isn’t well known
“Well his biography is somewhat buried by history for any number of reasons. I’m sure your listeners can understand why. Now, he was an artist of color in 18th century France. He was an aristocrat by virtue of him being the best swordsman in Europe, also one of the great violinists [and] composers of the day but trundled under by the French Revolution as were so many people.”
On whether he was as good as Mozart
“What’s interesting here is that you have two violins who have equal footing soloing together. The symphony concertante was a very, very new form that Saint-Georges basically created out of whole cloth. And Mozart, his very famous symphony concertante that he writes a year after in E flat with violin and viola apes this piece. What’s interesting about this is that in the Chevalier’s work, you’ve got two equal players that are playing together like a good duel. You want to have people equally matched. And that’s an innovation that Mozart takes onboard and that music history takes onboard to create these sort of double concertos which is really something that comes from Saint-Georges.
“You know, his output isn’t as extensive as Mozart’s. I mean whose is? And his instrumental writing career was curtailed by his involvement in the French Revolution. Saint-Georges amazingly becomes general of the first all-black regiment in European history to abolish slavery. So his life being as he is an athlete, a dancer, a fencer, a conductor is much more multifaceted than Mozart’s composing career. His output is smaller and he sits in between Mozart and Haydn so that his innovations are really what he is giving to future composers, in addition to the fact that many of his violin concertos are just fascinating and beautiful to listen.”
On what his favorite Saint-Georges’ composition is
“His Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 5, No. 2 is my favorite of his. It’s dramatic. It has lots of different colors in it. It’s passionate and it prefigures romanticism for me in quite a profound way that features the soloist as having an axe to grind and a real story to tell.”
On how Saint-Georges accomplished so much but was still held back because he was black
“Well that’s one of the great mysteries of history. But amazingly, Saint-Georges is 17. He challenges Alexander Picard to a duel. Picard is one of the rival fencing masters in all of France. He’s a student at that time and Picard is a master. And all of Paris gets involved in this duel because of course you have a black person who’s a student fighting a white French master. Saint-Georges wins, amazingly wins, and King Louis makes him a knight. He just says, this was so fascinating and amazing. I want you as part of my royal protection. So he becomes the only black knight in the King’s private guard. And that sort of makes his fame and suddenly everyone in Paris and everyone in France knows of the Chevalier. So that’s how he becomes famous.
“But then seven or eight years later, this famous fencer has a debut with live concert material, one of the great orchestras in Paris, as a violinist. And suddenly he’s a solo violinist playing his own compositions and no one knew that this man had been studying the violin for 20 years. So you could just imagine how his fame skyrocketed. And then the French Revolution happens and basically cuts off all of these artistic progressions in French music and opera and because of that I think his story is just lost.”
On the racism Saint-Georges faced
“He was put up to be the artistic leader of the Paris Opera, which at that point was the greatest stage in Europe. And this is in the late 1770s, right about the time that he’s with with Mozart. A petition is put forward by three aging divas — obviously they’re white. That said, they could not possibly sing for a mulatto, which of course is a very insensitive term but that’s the term that they used at the time for someone of mixed race. And he has to withdraw his name in great embarrassment.
“And part of the play that I’m writing includes Marie Antoinette in this because he was over in Versailles playing music with her privately. They would read together and perform together and they became very close. And I believe that out of respect for Marie Antoinette, so not to embarrass her, he withdraws his name from consideration. And these rare but painful slights because of his race did hold him back from some great places of privilege in Parisian society.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.