Monday, February 7, 2011

The Chevalier de Saint-George Known as the "black Mozart"

The Chevalier de Saint-George

The Joseph Bo(u)logne, Chevalier de Saint-George was born December 25, 1745 in the French Guadeloupe and died in Paris – June 10, 1799. He was one of the most important figures in the Paris musical scene in the second half of the 18th century, he was also famous as a swordsman and equestrian. Known as the "black Mozart" he was one of the earliest musicians of the European classical type known to have African ancestry.

Joseph Bologne was born in Guadeloupe to Nanon, a former slave, and a white French plantation owner, Georges Bologne de Saint-George. Although his father called himself ‘de Saint-George’, after one of his properties, he was not born into the nobility. However, Georges Bologne was not ennobled until 1757, when he acquired the title of Gentilhomme ordinaire de la chambre du roi.

In 1747 George Bologne was accused unjustly of murder and fled to France with his black mistress Nanon and there child to prevent their being sold. After two years he was granted a royal pardon by Louis XV and the family returned to Guadeloupe. Nanon and George arrived back in France on September 10, 1755. They took eight year old Joseph to live with them in a grand Hotel in the fashionable Saint-Germain quarter of Paris.

Joseph's life changed radically the following year. In October, 1756 the 13-year-old entered the fencing academy of Nicolas Texier de La Böessière, an elite boarding school for the sons of the aristocracy. Mornings at the academy consisted of classes in mathematics, history, foreign languages, music, drawing and dance. Afternoons were devoted to the most important subject, fencing. Joseph trained alongside the son of La Böessière and became a friend of the family. The younger La Böessière later wrote that Saint-Georges was the most extraordinary man of arms ever seen. Training in horsemanship took place at the Tuileries under expert guidance.

When still a student, Saint-George beat Alexandre Picard, a fencing-master of Rouen, who had mocked him as ‘La Boëssière’s upstart mulatto’, and was rewarded by his father with a horse and buggy. He also studied literature and horseback riding, and became an exceptional violinist.

He studied music in Saint-Domingue with the black violinist Joseph Platon before emigrating to Paris in 1752. The teacher, Platon, played an unspecified Saint-George violin concerto at Port-au-Prince (Haiti) on April 25, 1780.

After 1764, works dedicated to him by Lolli and Gossec suggest that Gossec was his composition teacher and that Lolli taught him violin. Saint-George’s technical approach was similar to that of Gaviniés, who may also have taught him. In 1769 he became a member of Gossec’s new orchestra, the Concert des Amateurs, at the Hôtel de Soubise, and was soon named its leader.

A room in the Hôtel de Soubise

On graduating at the age of 19, he was made a Gendarme de la Garde du Roi and dubbed chevalier. After the end of the Seven Years' War, George Bologne returned to his Guadeloupe plantations, leaving his son with a handsome annuity. The young chevalier became the darling of fashionable society; all contemporary accounts speak of his romantic conquests. In 1766 the Italian fencer Giuseppe Faldoni came to Paris to challenge Saint-George. Faldoni won, but proclaimed Saint-George the finest swordsman in Europe.

George de Bologne de Saint-Georges made a Last Will and Testament on December 9, 1765. I give and bequeath to Mademoiselle Anne Nanon, a free Negro woman who has been in my service for 30 years, a sum of three thousand pounds. I also give and bequeath to Monsieur de Saint-George, Écuyer, Adviser to the King and Controller Ordinary of Wars, a sum of fifty thousand pounds.

The Chevalier de Saint-George in a 1787 painting probably commissioned by the future George IV of the United Kingdom.

While still a young man, he acquired multiple reputations; as the best swordsman in France, as a violin virtuoso, and as a composer in the classical tradition. He could often be seen swimming across the Seine with only one arm, and in skating his skill exceeded everyone else's. As to the pistol, he rarely missed the target. In running he was reputed to be one of the leading exponents in the whole of Europe.

The marquise de Montesson

Joshua Reynolds - Louis Philippe Joseph, Duke of Orleans

He composed and conducted for the private orchestra and theatre of the marquise de Montesson, the morganatic wife of the King's cousin, Louis Philippe I, Duke of Orléans. In 1771, he was appointed maestro of the Concert des Amateurs, and later director of the Concert de la Loge Olympique, the biggest orchestra of his time (65-70 musicians). This orchestra commissioned Joseph Haydn to compose six symphonies (the "Paris Symphonies" Nr. 82-87), which Saint-George conducted for their world premiere. Renowned both for his skill as a composer and musician, he was selected for appointment as the director of the Royal Opera of Louis XVI. But this was prevented by three Parisian divas who petitioned the King in writing against the appointment, insisting that it would be beneath their dignity and injurious to their professional reputations for them to sing on stage under the direction of a "mulatto".

"The assault or fencing match which took place between Mademoiselle la Chevalière d'Eon de Beaumont and Monsieur de Saint-George on the 9th of April 1787 - At Carlton House in the presence of the Nobility and many eminent Fencing Masters of London." 

Thwarted in his musical career, Saint-George earned fresh renown as a competitive fencer. He had already been dubbed "chevalier" by appreciative crowds at the Palais Royal. There is a famous portrait of him crossing swords in an exhibition match with the daring transvestite spy, the Chevalier d'Eon, in the presence of George of Hanover, the Prince of Wales and Britain's future king. The Chevalière was actually Charles d'Éon de Beaumont, a male diplomat who dressed as a woman for many years to help him spy on foreign countries for the King of France. D'Éon was a multitalented man of letters, law, diplomacy and the military but had fallen out of favor with the royal court. He practiced fencing daily, in fear of his life. The encounter was not treated as headline news in the newspapers of Paris, but in her memoirs the Marquise de Créquy decried the fencing match between a "French gentleman" and a "mulatto" in scornful and racist language.

Four months after the fencing match in London, Saint-Georges premiered La Fille Garçon [The Girl Boy] at the Comédie-Italienne. Once again, most of the press praised the music of Saint-Georges. Baron Melchior von Grimm's newsletter on Parisian culture was an exception. Professor Ribbe notes that its critique reflected the racist opinions of Voltaire. He begins by paraphrasing the review:


Saint-Georges' trips to England introduced him to the country's anti-slavery movement. He helped found a French group called the Société des amis des noirs [Society of the Friends of Black People]. He also produced a children's musical, Aline et Dupré ou Le Marchand des marrons [Aline and Dupré or The Chestnut Seller]. It was staged on August 9, 1788. As a violinist, Saint-Georges gave concerts in England as well as France. One dark evening in January 1790 on which he was scheduled to perform in England he was walking alone, carrying his violin, when a man with a pistol and a stick tried to rob him. He fought off the robber, only to be attacked by 4 more men. He overpowered them as well. Gabriel Banat argues that Saint-Georges' support for the liberation of slaves was known in England, “...and no doubt sufficiently irritating to Britain's slave cartel to make them try to eliminate him.”

Société des amis des noirs

Certainly, the Chevalier was capable of playing the violin, but he was not creative. It would be contrary to Nature if he were. In the rest of his review Grimm showed that he had retained the lesson of Voltaire well: 'This piece, he said, is the best Monsieur de Saint-George has ever written. Nevertheless, it also appears to be lacking in creativity. This recalls an observation, which has not yet been contradicted, that if Nature has served the mulattos well in a certain way by giving them a marvelous aptitude to practice all the imitative arts, it seems however to have refused this impulse of feeling and genius

which alone produces new ideas and original designs.'

Symphonies, No. 85, was subtitled "The Queen," in  honor of Marie Antoinette.

Early in 1779, Saint-Georges began performing music with Queen Marie-Antoniette at Versailles, at her request. Professor Ribbe notes that some people in the palace were unhappy about the arrangement. In 1787, Saint-George conducted the premières of Joseph Haydn's six "Paris symphonies." Marie-Antoinette had them performed several nights in a row, such that one of these symphonies, No. 85, was subtitled "The Queen," in her honor.

Marie Antoinette

Mozart stayed in Paris in 1778 during the time of Saint-George's triumph. Many conductors did all they could to prevent this black composer's continued success.


Saint-George's second opera, La Chasse ("The Hunt," now lost), first performed on October 12, 1778 was enthusiastically received by the audience and the press alike.

Saint-George wrote symphonies, roughly 25 concertos for violin and orchestra, string quartets, sonatas, and songs in the style of Mozart, Haydn and the composers of the "Mannheim school". He also wrote at least five operas with a possible sixth opera, Le droit de seigneur, disputed among music scholars. Excerpts from his first opera, Ernestine, were also used in an opera pastiche, Recueil d’airs et duos, along with music by other composers.

Saint-George owed his fame as much to his virtuosity as for his compositions. His concertos attracted crowds to the Hôtel de Soubise (current headquarters of the National Archives), and to performances by the Concert des Amateurs (eighty musicians), lead by Saint-George. The composer's operas (including one for which the libretto was written by Choderlos de Laclos) had undeniably popularity at the Italian Comedy. Saint-George's qualities as a conductor were such that his orchestras were considered to be among the best in Europe.

The Chevalier was one of the first Black Masons in France. He was initiated into a Parisian lodge of the Grand Orient of France called Les 9 Soeurs [The Nine Sisters]. The Concert des amateurs closed in early 1781, and Masons quickly founded a new orchestra, Le Concert de la Loge Olympique [The Olympic Lodge Orchestra]. It was sponsored by a lodge known as l'Olympique de la Parfait Union [The Olympic of the Perfect Union]. The musicians were all Masons and were as skilled as those of the Amateurs. They performed in elegant quarters in the Palais-Royal [Royal Palace] under the direction of Saint-Georges. In 1784 he was authorized to commission Franz Joseph Haydn to write 6 symphonies for publication in Paris.

During the 17th century, the increase in the black population in France became a political issue. In order to protect their trade, slave owners and traders demanded that the King maintain racial separation. The Code Noir, a book of laws pertaining to blacks, was issued in response to these concerns. The philosopher Voltaire was among those who argued that Africans and their descendants were genetically inferior to white Europeans.

On April 5, 1762, King Louis XV decreed that peoples of color (nègres and mulattos) must register with the clerk of the Admiralty within two months. Saint-George's mother, Nanon, registered herself; she was 34 at the time of registration. On May 10, 1762, La Boissière registered Saint-George as Joseph de Boulogne.

Saint-George would pay dearly as the first black colonel of the French Army,

Like many others associated with the aristocracy and the court at Versailles, Saint-George served in the army of the Revolution against France's foreign enemies, although he is not known to have joined the domestic revolutionary struggle prior to the imprisonment of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. He was appointed the first black colonel of the French army, and commanded a regiment of a thousand free colored volunteers, largely consisting of former slaves from the region of his birth. Its official name was légion franche de cavalerie des Américains, but it soon became known to all as the légion Saint-George [Saint-George Legion]. The Colonel chose his friend and protege Alexandre Dumas as Lieutenant-Colonel. Like his Colonel, he was the son of a French aristocrat and an African slave. He later had a son, also named Alexandre Dumas, who won fame as author of The Three Musketeers.

Thomas Alexandre Dumas (Thomas Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie), the father of Alexandre Dumas. He was nicknamed the "Schwarze Teufel" ("Black Devil") by the Austrians

Repeatedly denounced, however, because of his aristocratic parentage and past association with the royal court, he was later expelled from the army, arrested, and jailed for nearly a year. After the revolution, he was entrusted with the leadership of the orchestra of the Royal Palace in the former residence of the Duke of Orléans. Saint-Georges lived alone in a small apartment in Paris during the last two years of his life. In late spring, 1799 an untreated bladder infection caused him to become weak and feverish. Saint-Georges was taken in and cared for by Nicolas Duhamel, an old friend who had served under him. He stayed at Duhamel's home until his death on June 10, 1799 at the age of 54. In the ensuing 200 years, he fell into obscurity. Critics accuse French cultural institutions of having deliberately ignored and minimized the importance of Saint-George, on the basis of his ethnic background. The great Chevalier de Saint-George did not know that over 200 years after his death people all over the world of different colors and ages would rediscover & listen to his music by Internet. The Chevalier de Saint-George lives on thru his beautiful music legacy!

The Chevalier de Saint-George

Rue du Chevalier Saint-George

For many years Paris had a street named for General Richepance. In 2001 the City Council changed its name to Rue du Chevalier de Saint-George, at the request of French citizens from the West Indies. A commemorative plaque for the street described Saint-George as a "Colonel de la Garde Nationale." Historian Luc Nemeth notes: "One could not better lie by omission, more than two centuries after the decree of December, 1792 stripped the unit of its identity as the 'Black Legion'." The original sign listed the date of birth as 1739, even though historians and most leading biographers have documented it as 1745. Gabriel Banat is author of the authoritative English language biography of Saint-Georges, The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow (2006). He engaged in a lengthy effort to obtain changes in the signs for the street. On 25 March 2010, the Office of the Mayor of Paris informed him of changes. Former Prof. Daniel Marciano has translated the letter from French:
Dear Sir, You drew my attention to the street signs of the Rue du Chevalier Saint-George, asking for the text to be modified. Please find herewith the photo of the new street signs which will soon be installed. Best regards, Philippe Lamy
The new signs call the street “Rue du Chevalier Saint-George,” and give the dates “1745-1799.” They add that he was “Colonel de la légion des Américains et du Midi,” [“Colonel of the Legion of the Americans and of the South”] the Legion of mainly Black volunteers Saint-Georges commanded.


  1. This is all brand new to me... what an extraordinary figure... there is a book here, my friend!!! I just read yesterday (after seeing the George Arliss film on the subject) that aside from funding the allies during the war with Napoleon, that Rothschild loaned the money to pay off plantation owners to release their slaves!!! Who knew? So much history is lost to us and is crying to be told. Thanks for sharing this tasty bit!

  2. Hi lostpastremembered thanks for your comment! I have to always remind myself that history is not written in stone. New views come to light just about every day casting new endings to old story's. There was a lot going on behind the scenes in history and some of it is just now coming to light.

  3. Oh fascinating post. I am humbled again, I didn't know him.