Who was Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges?

What is it about the exploits of titled composers that courts notoriety? Think of the Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza (better known as Gesualdo), whose harmonically tortured music neatly counterpoints his fame as a double murderer. Or more benignly, how about the eccentric Lord Berners, who dyed his pigeons all the colours of the rainbow and motored around in a Rolls-Royce boasting its own customised clavichord? When it comes to jaw-dropping extra-musical acclaim, however, there is no one to touch Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The spelling of his name and the year of his birth might be open to dispute, but there’s no debating that he was a man of many talents, and outstanding in all of them. In the age of social media he’d have been a natural as an ‘influencer’; in pre-revolutionary Paris his influence cut deep.

When and where was Joseph Bologne born?

Born in Guadeloupe in 1975 to a French colonial plantation owner, George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy plantation owner, and and his mistress, a young Senegalese slave, Joseph was taken to Paris at an early age to acquire the education of a gentleman. Enrolled at Boëssière’s celebrated Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de l’équitation, his fencing skills earned him the soubriquet ‘the god of arms’; and when he subsequently bested Alexandre Picard, one of the foremost fencers in all France, the victory was doubly sweet since the Exhibition had inevitably pitted supporters and opponents of slavery against each other. When he graduated in 1766, Joseph was appointed a Gendarme du Roi (a member of the King’s bodyguard) and, following in his father’s footsteps, he assumed the style Chevalier de Saint-Georges – a title he could never have inherited because of the strict inheritance laws applied to the son of a slave. And with his prowess as runner, skater, crack shot and excellent rider, not to mention his party piece of swimming across the Seine with one hand tied behind his back, a glittering career in the military might have been predicted.

Who taught Joseph Bologne music?

Bubbling away in the background however, a different path was beckoning. Whether Joseph had received any musical tuition in Guadeloupe is open to speculation, but music was certainly part of the curriculum for any aspiring gentleman. The 19th-century writer Fétis suggested that the great Jean-Marie Leclair might have had a hand in developing the young man’s violin technique, and it seems likely that the composer-impresario François-Joseph Gossec pointed him in the direction of composing. Whatever the case, Gossec was certainly to prove influential. And Joseph must have been a fast learner. Two years before his graduation from the fencing academy, Antonio Lotti had written a couple of violin concertos for him; Gossec dedicated a set of string trios in 1766; and in 1768 Le Mercure de France published an effusively laudatory poem describing the youthful Bologne as a ‘child of genius’, ‘a rival to the god of harmony’ who would be ‘taken for Apollo should he join his music to poetry’. Astonishing, given that he was yet to take his place in Gossec’s hand-picked orchestra the Concert des Amateurs, a move that would kick-start his musical career. (Indeed when, in 1770, Carl Stamitz presented his Op. 1 to Bologne senior, the dedication praised ‘a lover of the arts… who has given us artists an invaluable gift in the person of his son’).

He was biased of course, but Gossec insisted that Les Amateurs boasted the most skilled performers of Paris ‘in all parts’. It mustered players from the Opéra and Court, so Bologne must have been exceptional to be admitted; yet by 1773 Gossec had handed it over to him lock, stock and barrel, safe in the knowledge that the previous year Bologne had made a solo debut with the orchestra playing his two violin concertos Op. 2 – ‘to rapturous applause,’ noted Le Mercure. Not only did he now have an outstanding vehicle for demonstrating his technical wizardry, but an eager outlet for his own music. Little surprise, then, that the 1770s would prove a most propitious decade for composition as Bologne drilled his band into what the Almanach musical described as ‘the best orchestra for symphonies in Paris, and perhaps Europe’.

First off the press in 1773 came a predominantly amiable set of string quartets betraying an easy rapport with the medium without ever challenging Haydn’s greater ambition. (The second collection of ‘quatuors concertans’ was marketed under the promise ‘written in the taste of the day’. Bologne kept his ear to the ground, happy to give his audiences exactly what they wanted). To 1773, too, belong the violin concertos Opp 2 & 3, the first fruits of a distinguished harvest that arguably contains some of his finest work. And why wouldn’t it? Like Vivaldi or Paganini, he was a composer-executant par excellence who knew his instrument inside out – and, fencer to his fingertips, was fearless, lunging ever higher into a stratosphere never attempted by Mozart, only to pause dramatically before plunging into the depths of the violin’s tessitura. All that alongside a gift for soaring, radiant melody. And if he prefers to follow his ears rather than interrogate the material in the manner of, say, Beethoven (born just before Bologne’s musical ascendancy had taken wing), true to the classical spirit, an intuitive sense of balance and symmetry prevails.

Halfway through the decade appeared the first two examples of a Bologne speciality: the symphonie concertante. It was a genre currently sweeping Paris and the Chevalier was one of its most enthusiastic exponents. Conceived essentially along double violin concerto lines – even if Op. 10 invites a solo viola to the mix – here, for Bologne, was something that again appealed to his sporting instincts, replacing the foil with the bow without sacrificing the carefully choreographed cut and thrust,
or compromising the frisson of the parry (all the while opening up the melodic imperatives to the seductive siren song of
sweet duetting).

Success can often breed jealousy, and if in 1776 Bologne seemed on the crest of a wave, a squall was brewing. The directorship of the Paris Opéra was up for grabs, and to many he was the obvious candidate. He moreover enjoyed the backing of his friend and colleague in musical arms, Queen Marie-Antoinette. Partly racially motivated, and perhaps fearful too at how a new broom might sweep clean, a small cabal within the company objected and Bologne withdrew. It must have left a bad taste, but it didn’t put him off opera. Le Mercure’s ‘god of harmony’ was about to try Apollo’s cap for size.

What was Joseph Bologne's first opera?

Produced in 1777, Ernestine (a one-night-wonder) signalled his first foray onto an operatic stage which would absorb him henceforth. Much more successful was a comedy, La Partie de chasse, the following year. And perhaps most successful of all was L’Amant anonyme whose overture was subsequently repurposed as the Symphony No. 2. (Premiered in 1780, the opera enjoyed a New York revival in 2016).

Mozart was in Paris as Bologne’s operatic successes mounted, and the two probably boarded under the same aristocratic roof at one point – in addition to his other positions, Bologne had also been appointed Master of the Hunt to his old friend the Duc d’Orléans, lending La Partie de chasse a little insider knowledge… What Mozart surely took away, however, was a memory of the symphonies concertantes, particularly as he embarked on his own specimen for violin and viola K364 shortly afterwards. And Mozart wasn’t the only denizen of Austrian classicism to cross Bologne’s path. By 1781, beset by financial problems, Les Amateurs had folded, only for the ever-resourceful Bologne to replace it with Le Concert de la Loge Olympique: effectively a house orchestra for the eponymous Freemasons’ Lodge. For this outfit, basking in the luxury of over 40 violins, Haydn composed his six ‘Paris’ Symphonies. It may be that Bologne ventured to Austria to seal the deal, but whatever, he presided over their premieres in 1786 – just two years before his world would start to turn upside down.

With the onset of the French Revolution the ‘Olympiques’ disbanded and Bologne headed across the Channel. It wasn’t his first visit to England, where the likes of William Wilberforce inspired him to be active in the French movement for the abolition of slavery. Fencing exhibitions remained a useful source of income, and a painting by Robineau records a newsworthy match before the Prince of Wales with the transgender, cross-dressing diplomat and spy, the Chevalier/Chevalière d’Éon.

Unswervingly principled, on the sideof the revolutionaries and never able to resist a call to action, Bologne returned to France in 1790, and as colonel, headed a militia of some thousand men of colour, the first in Europe. He was not without enemies, however, and finding himself charged with unrevolutionary sympathies and convicted, he endured lengthy imprisonment – only escaping Madame La Guillotine by a whisker.

How and when did Joseph Bologne die?

Bologne died in Paris in 1799 of a bladder infection.

What is his legacy?

If rare good fortune had shone on Bologne at the outset of his career, that cultivation of aristocratic patronage, paradoxically, ultimately worked against him. His was an inspirational meteor that burned bright, only to be extinguished prematurely by a political maelstrom; that, plus over two centuries of culturally distanced neglect. A biopic is due to be released next year. As life stories go, you couldn’t make it up.

Top illustration by Matt Herring