- ALREADY SUBSCRIBED?
Fill in your credentials below.
If the life of any French personality deserves to be made into a biopic, it surely must be that of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. In an age of widespread slavery, Saint-Georges, who was mixed-race, was one of the most celebrated men in France, displaying a phenomenal range of talents. Not only was he among the most important musicians in Paris during the pre-Revolutionary period, he was also a superb all-round athlete and man of arms. He lived in dangerous times and overcame the racial prejudices of his era. Born in the colony of Guadeloupe, he made a name for himself in Paris and the court of Versailles, as one of the most important characters in both musical and military fields.
Fortunately, Saint-Georges’ life and career are showcased in the biographical film Chevalier, theatrically released in the spring of 2023 by Searchlight Pictures. The movie recounts the extraordinary life of Saint-Georges, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. Speculation and artistic license abound, but the film has received positive reviews. Hopefully this is the beginning of a revival in interest in Saint-Georges, whose life story has largely been lost to time.
Viewers can also see his character portrayed in the mini-series Marie Antoinette currently airing on PBS in America.
His mother was a slave, but Joseph Bologne was born a free man on Christmas Day, 1745. Joseph’s father was the minor French nobleman and Guadeloupe plantation owner Georges Bologne de Saint-Georges. His mother Nanon was reputed to be the most beautiful young woman in the West Indies, and Georges Bologne acknowledged his mistress and illegitimate child, supporting them throughout his life. Fearing for the future of his mixed-race son in the colonies, Georges bought the best possible education for Joseph and sent his precociously gifted seven-year-old to Paris.
In 1753, little Joseph was enrolled in a Jesuit boarding school in Angoulême, but within two years he was reunited with his parents who had taken an apartment at 49, rue Saint-André des Arts in Paris. Nanon had been freed by the act of enfranchisement by Bologne de Saint-Georges.
At 13, Joseph was enrolled in Boëssière’s fencing academy in the Rue Saint Honoré. Fencing was like a calling card into French society. Joseph’s progress was rapid – by 15, he was beating the best swordsmen in France.
Henry Angelo, the 18th-century British swordsman, said, “Saint-Georges combined in his person his mother’s grace and good looks, and his father’s vigor and assurance”.
Bologne was still a student when he faced the fencing master Alexandre Picard in an important duel. The older man, no doubt part of a racist faction to discredit the boy, had been publicly mocking Bologne. A crowd of several hundred, divided on the subject of slavery, witnessed and bet upon the match. Joseph Bologne won handily; supporters stated he was a swordsman non-pareil. His ever-supportive father so pleased with the outcome presented Joseph with a horse and carriage that enabled him to maneuver around Paris and through Parisian society.
In 1761 Joseph was made an officer in the court of King Louis XV and, adopting the suffix of his father’s plantation, he was known as “Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges.” He was described as being tall, slim, and well proportioned. His noble features possessed great charm and expression, and he was quick and agile. Henry Angelo said of Saint-Georges, “Never did any man combine such suppleness with so much strength.”
However, Saint-Georges excelled at more than fencing – he shone in every physical exercise he took up. The principal of the Tuileries Riding School considered him one of his best pupils. He was seen swimming across the Seine using only one arm. Creating arabesques, his skating skill exceeded all others. One account says Saint-Georges was the best marksman in Europe; another said he was the best runner on the continent. He was an elegant dancer and he was often imitated for his elegant style of dress.
However, Chevalier Saint-Georges is best known as one of the most important musicians in France from 1765-1789. Musical education was considered de rigueur for members of the nobility but Saint-Georges outclassed the usual standard. Not much is known of his education in music, but it’s assumed that the bulk of Saint-Georges’ musical education took place between 1758 and 1769, the year of his first professional engagement as the first violinist in Joseph Gossec’s Concert des Amateurs. A triple-threat, Saint-Georges caused a sensation in 1772, as a virtuoso violinist, composer and conductor. He demonstrated the same, speed, dexterity and grace that he did as a fencer. He took over the prestigious Concerts des Amateurs from his mentor Gossec and they were soon regarded one of the finest orchestras in France.
Saint-Georges was Marie Antoinette’s music teacher and she supported him avidly, accompanying him to his private performances. After the flop of his only opera, Ernestine, in 1777, he became affiliated with the private theater and concerts of Madame de Montesson, wife of the Duke of Orleans.
Though caught in a whirlwind of activity, Saint-Georges was hardly a prolific composer – not surprising given the exceptional range of his activities. At the height of his fame as a performer, Saint-Georges still made trips to England to compete in exhibition swordfights. One of the most celebrated was his match with the cross-dressing Chevalier d’Éon, who sparred with Saint-Georges in women’s clothes.
His concerts featured symphonies by famous visitors like Haydn and Mozart. Mozart and Saint-Georges lived under Madame de Montesson’s protective wing from 5 July to 11 September 1778 after the tragic death of Mozart’s mother. Saint-Georges is often referred to as the Black Mozart, but in hindsight, it is entirely plausible that Saint-Georges could have had some influence on the younger Austrian.
Accepted in society, Saint-Georges was acquainted with many of the great men of his day. Curious women were charmed by the well-dressed, handsome gentleman. His dancing ability gave him entry into their sophisticated salons. Saint-Georges had danced and fenced his way into their hearts. He became involved with many society women but he spurned the advances of the dancer Marie-Madeleine Guimard. Once rejected, Guimard, who had the ear of Marie Antoinette, played a pivotal role in the denial of Saint-Georges’ ambition to become the director of the Paris Opera.
In 1776, when the Opera needed a new director, his supporter Marie Antoinette put the Chevalier’s name forth to her husband, Louis XVI. His nomination collapsed when Guimard and two of the troupe’s singers appealed to the queen saying they would not be subjected to the orders of a “mulatto.” Louis XVI gave the role to no one and the court took over the management of the Opera. The Queen continued to host Saint-Georges’ musical performances in her private apartments at Versailles.
The Chevalier is known to have had a serious romantic relationship with the Marquise Marie-Joséphine de Montalembert, a salonnière, novelist and the very young wife of a very old general. They may have had a child together. It was suggested that the Marquis de Montalembert, eager to avenge his honor and punish the seducer of his wife, orchestrated a midnight attack on Saint-Georges in which he was set upon and beaten by half a dozen men with cudgels.
Saint-Georges owed much of his success to his connections with the aristocracy. However, on 26 August 1789, when the revolutionaries declared equal rights to all French people, he sided with the Revolution. Though a free man of color, he was affected by racism and racist laws in pre-Revolutionary France. As an able equestrian and man-at-arms, he must have been a welcome recruit when he eagerly enrolled in June 1791 when the National Assembly called for volunteers.
Forty-five years old, Saint-Georges served as a colonel in a corps consisting of 1,000 Black men. This legion was often referred to as the “Légion Saint-Georges” after their famous colonel. He trained his second-in-command Thomas-Alexandre Dumas in swordsmanship. The father of the great novelist Alexandre Dumas, his family were also of mixed-race. Saint-Georges may have inspired his son’s literary character, Aramis.
Saint-Georges’s reputation as a hero didn’t last. Despite his military commitments, he was often absent and continued to stage concerts. His troops were less than successful and in 1793, he was denounced for the misappropriation of funds and for his royal sympathies. Now a victim of the Reign of Terror, he avoided the guillotine, but was imprisoned for 18 months. Upon his release, he was unable to reinstate his military career and had little success in restarting his musical livelihood. He lived as a vagabond, traveling and residing for a while on Saint-Domingue, now Haiti.
To trace the Chevalier’s French footsteps, documents have him living at 49, rue Saint-André des Arts, in the 6th arrondissement with his parents. As a grown man in 1774, he lived at Rue Guénégaud, also in the 6th, with Nanon. In 1777, he lived on the Rue des Fontaines-du-Temple. The next year he had another Marais address on Rue Saint Pierre. Saint-Georges moved to 5, Chaussée d’Antin in 1781. After 1785, he lived in the colonnaded Palais Royal. In 1791 found the Chevalier in Lille. Back in Paris in 1793, he gave his address as Rue des Filles-Saint-Thomas. In March 1796, he lived on the rue Jean Fleury. In 1799, as a sick man, he lived on the Rue de Chartres-Saint-Honoré across from the Palais Royal but this street has since disappeared.
On 10 June 1799, Saint-Georges died at 13, Rue de Boucherat. He’d been suffering from a series of infections and stomach ailments. Poor and alone, he succumbed to gangrene at just 53 years old. There were certainly greater composers than Saint-Georges during the late 18th-century but none who possessed his remarkable range of talents or his fascinating personality.
[Listen to a clip of his music below.]
Lead photo credit : Still from the film release by Searchlight Pictures shows Kelvin Harrison Jr as the Chevalier