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Paris: The Black Maestro

One of the first French composers of string quartets and symphonies concertantes was of mixed-race origins—a mulatto, as they used to say. Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was born on Guadeloupe in 1745, the son of a planter and his slave mistress. As a free black and illegitimate, Saint-Georges could not have inherited his father’s property, but his father had the foresight to send him to school in France, where he became a renowned swordsman and violinist. Between 1773 and 1781 he was conductor of the Concert des Amateurs, one of the finest private orchestras in eighteenth-century Europe, which helped to give expression to the changes in musical tastes then occurring in Paris. He conducted the première of Haydn’s “Paris” symphonies in 1786 with the Concert de la Société Olympique, the orchestra of the Masonic lodge he belonged to, and prepared the manuscripts for publication.

Saint-Georges was a success in a city where Mozart on his second visit found frustration and slights (for a few months, they both lived under the roof of the musical patron Madame du Montesson, wife of the Duke of Orléans). One of the sad ironies of Saint-Georges’s life is that while he flourished during the ancien régime, when the slave lobby was powerful and free blacks were confined to the margins of French society, he was mistreated by the forces of the Revolution, which he supported with much hope. He died in 1799, as Napoleon was making his way back from Egypt. In 1802, Napoleon would reinstitute the Caribbean slavery that the Revolution had abolished in 1792.

Charles Burney does not mention Saint-Georges in his A General History of Music (1776–1789) and one of the legends about him is that his scores were destroyed during the racist period of Napoleon’s Consulate. However, Gabriel Banat makes the point in his fascinating biography that Saint-Georges did not disappear completely from the annals of French musical history following his death. His name comes up in early-twentieth-century histories of the violin and in works on Haydn, even if it isn’t always remembered in these books that he was black.1

In fact, he was one of only two known black composers from the classical era in Europe.2 He came along at a time when the court was losing its control over musical expression; when new music by such composers as Haydn, Mozart, and Johann Christian Bach was in the air, and new audiences and new genres for music were being discovered. Banat, a violinist and musicologist, also believes that while Saint-Georges’s being black may have been the initial reason behind the recent revival of interest in his life and career, his music has become the chief reason to want to know about him. He had imagination and an exquisite ear. More groups and performers are recording his violin concertos, quartets, and symphonies concertantes.3 The cellist and conductor Fred Sherry, who has studied Saint-Georges’s music, has commented that both musicians and amateurs are “curious about the musical customs of the period that is dominated by Haydn and Mozart; and the life and work of Saint-Georges are important if we are to understand the musical developments of that time.” Banat sees him as a transitional figure between Haydn and Beethoven.

In Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, a scene opens with the young Queen seated at the harpsichord beside a handsome black man in a powdered wig. She takes her leave of him with a smile. Nothing in the film says so, but this is clearly “the famous Saint-Georges,” as he was called, who for a brief period had been included in Marie Antoinette’s intimate musicales. Tall, graceful in bearing, easily spotted in the crowds at the Palais-Royal, Saint-Georges also became famous in his youth as one of the greatest fencing masters of the time. When John Adams was in Paris in 1779 as a member of the commission negotiating an alliance between Louis XVI and the Continental Congress, he recorded in his diary some of the stories about Saint-Georges then making the rounds of fashionable salons. “The most accomplished man in Europe in Riding, Shooting, Fencing, dancing, Music,” he would “hit a Crown Piece in the Air with a Pistoll Ball.” It was said that crowds gathered along the Seine in winter to watch him skate and in spring to watch him swim across the river with one arm tied behind his back.

What makes Banat’s book particularly welcome is that Saint-Georges finally has a biographer who tries to give a sense of his place in music history. He has no patience with the romanticized biographies and fictionalized accounts of Saint-Georges’s life, particularly those that have been published in France in recent years. Banat has gone through the archives to establish what can be known with certainty about him. Much of his music has survived, but only two of his letters; three friends left tender portraits of him in their memoirs.

Saint-Georges’s biographers do not agree who his father was, except that his was a member of an extended family of planters on Guadeloupe.4 Banat writes that George Bologne de Saint-George [sic] was named “after one of his properties, not to denote nobility but as a way of distinguishing him from other Bolognes.” Descended from Huguenots, the Bolognes had been Creoles, or natives to the island, for several generations. Banat guesses that Joseph’s mother, Nanon, was a household slave. “All contemporary reports emphasize that she was very beautiful.” George Bologne was married and had a daughter, but his only son was his mixed-race child, Joseph, born on Christmas Day in 1745.

Though a grand-colon—a large property ownerSaint-Georges’s father could not have fully protected him from the Code Noir, the regulations regarding the treatment of blacks in Guadeloupe and other French colonies first promulgated by Louis XIV, which stipulated that a black person’s status be determined by his or her mother’s. Free blacks were a threat to the slave system,5 and to liberate a slave required the approval of the authorities and the payment of a heavy tax. Marriage between whites and free blacks was prohibited; a free black could not take the name of a white person or inherit property from any white person. A free black in the colonies could not share a table with a white person, carry a sword, or display silk or lace embroidery on his or her clothing.

In 1753, Joseph’s father took him to France, enrolling him in the Collège Saint Louis, a Jesuit school in Angoulême. He returned with Joseph’s mother in 1755. If Bologne planned to go back to Guadeloupe, he was prevented from doing so by the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in 1756. When the family finally moved to Paris, Bologne purchased a post as gentleman of the king’s bedchamber, thus becoming ennobled. In 1758, Joseph, age thirteen, was placed in the fencing academy of Tessier de la Boëssière, where he remained for six years. So great was his talent that by the time he was seventeen, many turned up at the academy to cross foils with him. As La Boëssière’s son would remember years later, Joseph’s fellow pupils were devoted to him, because his strength and skill went with a sweetness of manner that charmed even those among his peers who envied his success. He exhibited an enormous capacity for self-control at a young age, but all his life he was known to have a temper when provoked. Still, Saint-Georges negotiated his way among the upper ranks so successfully that he dazzled most white people into overlooking, if not forgetting, his color. He was not a light-skinned black who could more or less blend in; according to contemporary accounts, he was brown and unusually handsome.

In 1761, a rival fencing master sought to promote his new school in Rouen by challenging “La Boëssière’s mulatto” to a match. In a widely publicized contest, Joseph dispatched his opponent with ease. Banat surmises that Louis XV may have had a bet on the outcome. Afterward, the King appointed Joseph a gendarme du roi—one of an elite unit of guards who patrolled the grounds of Versailles on horseback—making him a chevalier. “The Chevalier de Saint-Georges would become the darling of salons and drawing rooms of Paris society…’he loved and was loved.’” He lived the life of a young aristocrat, driving about in his English chaise. He was surrounded by an entourage of high-born sportsmen. But no matter how much in demand he was as a lover and friend, he was nevertheless unthinkable as a husband.

A small school of Enlightenment writers, including Condorcet and the Abbé Henri Grégoire, did not believe that black people were inferior to white people. But while the Encyclopédistes condemned the slave trade in no uncertain terms, that did not necessarily mean that they believed Africans the equal of Europeans. Voltaire joked that he wasn’t sure if Africans were descended from monkeys or if monkeys were descended from Africans. When planters in the French Antilles returned to Paris after securing their fortunes, it was not uncommon for them to bring with them their slave mistresses (as Mirabeau’s uncle did) or their sons by slave mistresses (but not their daughters).

Blacks were familiar figures in French ports and the capital in the eighteenth century, but their numbers are hard to ascertain and their legal situation was subject to change. In 1762, when a decree supported by racist politicians required them to submit their names to the Admiralty, only 159 “Nègres” and “sangs mêlés” registered in Paris, a city of over half a million people. Saint-Georges’s mother Nanon appeared in person, but Saint-Georges’s master-at-arms, La Boëssière, made his pupil’s declaration for him—a proud young man’s way of resisting, Banat notes. In any case Saint-Georges does not seem to have had any great difficulty being part of the French court.

It is remarkable that he received the young aristocrat’s education that he did, since attitudes about blacks were hardening as the importance of the sugar colonies to France increased. France was not to have an abolition movement like the one developing in Great Britain around this time. There had been Enlightenment-era experiments in the education of blacks in Holland and Germany, but these few black students of Latin treatises became theologians and clergymen; none became a swashbuckler who carried a sword and guarded a king. Saint-Georges’s story is closer to that of Pushkin’s grandfather, Gannibal, “the Negro of Peter the Great,” the African favorite and general whom the Tsar had sent to France for his military education.

What is striking—and moving—is that Saint-Georges’s opportunities seemed to have been created by a father’s love, although, having installed his son in school, George Bologne went back to Guadeloupe after the Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years’ War was signed in 1763 and died there ten years later. Nanon remained with her son, but it is not known when or where she died. Banat observes that Saint-Georges was without benefit of his father’s counsel when in 1766 an Italian swordsman challenged him and in a match watched by a large and distinguished audience, Saint-Georges lost. After this defeat, he turned to music in earnest.

  1. 1

    See Alberto Bachmann, An Encyclopedia of the Violin (1925; Da Capo, 1975) and H.C. Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Volume II, Haydn at Eszterháza, 1766–1790 (Indiana University Press, 1978).

  2. 2

    The other is the Chevalier J.J.O. de Meude-Monpas, about whom little is known at the moment, apart from the fact that he died in Berlin in 1806.

  3. 3

    The Avenira Foundation in Switzerland issued in 1997 a series of five CDs of Saint-Georges’s work, symphonies, violin concertos, and symphonies concertantes recorded by the Radio Symphony Orchestra Pilsen, under Frantisek Presiler Jr. In 2005 they released the Apollon Quartet’s recording of six of Saint Georges’s string quartets. Forlane and Naxos are said to have plans to record all of Saint-Georges’s quartets and his symphonies concertantes for violin. A search on amazon.com tells us that several of the recordings of Saint-Georges made only a few years ago are already out of print, among them the Naxos 2001 recording of three of Saint-Georges’s violin concertos, made by the Cologne Chamber Orchestra, under Helmut Muller-Bruhl, with Takako Nishizaki as soloist.

  4. 4

    Alain Guédé, in Monsieur de Saint-George: A Legendary Life Rediscovered, translated by Gilda M. Roberts (Picador, 2003), says that Saint-George [sic] was born on Guadeloupe in 1739 and that his father was Guillaume-Pierre Tavernier de Boullongne. His power to advance his black son’s career was derived from his family’s intimacy with Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s ruinous mistress. A distant cousin who acted as head of the family became controller general of finances. This would mean that Saint-Georges’s uncle rose to the post of farmer general (or chief tax collector) and his father treasurer general in the event of war. Banat says this line of paternity is favored by those who want to explain Saint-Georges’s career as a result of patronage and court connections. Odet Denys, in Qui était Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1739–1799)? (Paris: Le Pavillon, 1972), gives 1739 as his year of birth, while Emil F. Smidak’s Joseph Boulogne, called Chevalier de Saint-Georges, translated by John M. Mitchell (Geneva: Avenira Foundation, 1996) favors 1748.

  5. 5

    See Claudine Hunting, “The Philosophes and Black Slavery, 1748–1765,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 59, No. 3 (July–September 1978); and Sue Peabody, “There Are No Slaves in France”: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime (Oxford University Press, 1996).

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