‘Why was this person erased?’ : the untold story of the black French maestro | Music

It’s the moment Amadeus finally knows how Salieri felt. Strutting arrogantly, Mozart is challenged to a violin duel and eclipsed by a precocious rival. Her name? Joseph Bologne, AKA the Knight of St. George, AKA Young, Gifted and Black.

Whether that showdown ever happened is doubtful, but it makes for a playful opening for Chevalier, a new film based on the life of the long-neglected classical composer who was also a champion fencing champion, as devastating with foil as he was with fiddlestick.

The film, directed by Stephen Williams (Watchmen) and written by Stefani Robinson (Atlanta), traces Bologna from its origins on a slave plantation to its meeting with Marie-Antoinette, the last queen of France before the revolution.

Bologna – played by Kelvin Harrison Jr, who studied the violin seven hours a day – was born in 1745 on the island of Guadeloupe. Her parents were Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, a wealthy French plantation owner, and a 16-year-old slave from Senegal, known as Nanon, who would eventually live in France as a free woman.

Bologna moved to France as a child. Julia Doe, assistant professor of music at Columbia University in New York, explains: “Pragmatically speaking, her father had to flee Guadeloupe to escape murder charges. More generally, it was not uncommon for members of the he French colonial elite sent their children, including mixed-race, to be educated in metropolitan France.

Bologna studied music, mathematics, literature and fencing at the Académie La Boëssière. Doe continues: “In his early teens, Bologna enrolled in this prestigious fencing academy of a Parisian fencing master and, because fencing was a physical art associated with historic French nobility, the skills and the connections he developed at this academy would pave his way. entry into the highest spheres of courts and capital.

“Once he arrives in Paris, he becomes this truly remarkable figure. A close friend of his wrote a biographical sketch a few decades after his death and, unlike other more famous composers of this period, it is very clear that music was only one facet of personal and professional identity. from Bologna. His friend praises his integrity and achievements as a swordsman, dancer, swimmer, ice skater, etc. It’s really extraordinary.

Bologna achieved fame as an undefeated fencer and hailed as a dancer, equestrian and fashion trendsetter. John Adams, the second American president, declared him “Europe’s most accomplished man in horsemanship, shooting, fencing, dancing and music”.

People flocked to his violin concerts as he pushed the instrument to its limits. As a composer, Bologna wrote pioneering string quartets and helped establish the symmetry and melody of the Baroque era.

Doe continues: “In the mid-1760s his name began to appear as the dedicatee of violin pieces published by other virtuosos in Paris, indicating that his talents were beginning to be recognised. Then, in a few years, he established himself quite firmly on the Parisian music scene.

Bologna’s artistic achievements fell into four main areas: he held high-level positions as orchestral player, soloist and ensemble director; he is responsible for writing operas for the Parisian theaters; he appeared in the musical salons of the nobles and the wealthy; it publishes works for the flourishing French printing market.

Doe adds, “His extensive output for these halls included all of the most popular genres of that time: violin concertos, operas, songs and chamber music, among other works. His music was quite popular.”

He may have influenced other composers, including his contemporary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But the violin duels depicted in the movie Knight are likely artistic license from Hollywood.

Knight of Saint George.  Portrait of the French violinist and composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), painting by Mather Brown, 17892P53R6K Chevalier de Saint-Georges.  Portrait of the French violinist and composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), painting by Mather Brown, 1789
Photograph: IanDagnall Computing/Alamy

Doe says, “A general relationship between these two very precocious musicians is certainly plausible. Mozart traveled to Paris in 1778, and once there he associated himself with the extensive networks of a very powerful man, the Duke of Orleans, who was also patron of Bologna. Mozart wrote music for various series of concerts in the capital with which Bologna had relations. It seems likely that they met and, if they didn’t, they surely knew each other’s work.

“Music scholars find the comparative label sometimes used – ‘the Black Mozart’ – to be far too reductive because it is very clear that Bologna’s remarkable life deserves to be studied in its own right. Although their pieces draw on a common stylistic vocabulary simply because they were both writing in a courtly context in the 18th century, their music is not This similar.”

Bologna is appointed officer of the King’s Guard. King Louis XV named him Chevalier de Saint-Georges, after his father’s title, even though the French Code Noir forbade him from officially inheriting the title due to his African ancestry.

Indeed, for all its celebrity, Bologna did not obtain equal rights. While French Enlightenment philosophers opposed slavery, he was well aware that the monarchy supported him.

As he stood on the verge of winning the ultimate prize, becoming the first person of color to lead the Paris Opera, a trio of divas intervened, declaring that they would “never submit to the orders of a mulatto”.

Doe says: “The Paris Opera was at the time the most prestigious cultural institution in France. It was a company supported by the Crown which produced tragic operas. The precise chain of events is not retrievable from the archives as the opera was in a state of disarray at the time, but it appears that this failure was racially motivated.

“A periodical reports that several of the company’s star singers had petitioned the Queen, whom Bologna knew well enough, to thwart her candidacy, refusing to work under the guidance of a mixed-race musician.”

Kelvin Harrison Jr in Knight
Kelvin Harrison Jr in Knight. Photo: Larry Horricks/AP

The queen in question was Marie Antoinette, who arrived in France as a 14-year-old Austrian princess. Bologna was recruited to teach him music. But in her hour of need at the Paris Opera, she didn’t lift a finger to help.

Snubbed, Bologna went from music to social change, becoming an abolitionist and a soldier in the French Revolution. He led the first all-black regiment in France, 1,000 strong.

Few details are known about his private life but he would have been particularly close to Marie-Joséphine de Comarieu, wife of the Marquise de Montalembert – a plot that is a gift to the directors of the film.

Doe comments, “There are numerous references in gossip periodicals of the time that he was highly regarded by aristocratic women, but nothing fully substantiated. I suspect it’s quite fictional, but gossip about the love of aristocratic women for him circulated in the 18th century.

Bologna died in 1799 of an ulcerated bladder, unmarried and without known children. But his music, which includes references to traditional songs from Guadeloupe, has been revived in recent years by orchestras and opera houses around the world. His chamber opera The Anonymous Lover was recently staged by LA Opera.

Marcos Balter, a black composer and professor of musical composition at Columbia University, says, “He tries to come out of his curiosity. One would hope that someone of his importance and relevance would not just be ‘rediscovered’. But do I think it gets enough performances considering its importance in the history of Western classical music? No. It’s better, but better doesn’t mean good.

Now Knight, released on Friday, aims to put Bologna back at the center of cultural conversation – and to repudiate the idea that classical music has long been the preserve of dead European white men.

Balter, 49, comments: Black contribution to classical music has always been very robust and very diverse. It’s not that there is a shortage. There is a scarcity myth and there is a lack of information about it.

“More often than not, the contributions of people who are not from what is perceived as the Eurocentric heritage or people with a specific profile tend to be downplayed or sometimes completely erased from history. People like me, of course, would feel a bit like outsiders when sometimes history proves otherwise, that we were an integral part of this story, it’s just the way it was told that kept us away from it.

Kelvin Harrison Jr and Lucy Boynton in Knight
Kelvin Harrison Jr and Lucy Boynton in Knight. Photo: Larry Horricks/AP

This was the case of Bologna. “He was a major figure in the history of classical music. When you think of the classical period, he was one of the leading names in developing many of its strengths, musically and stylistically. You don’t see that in the history books.

“If you do your research, you see that he was one of the first composers to engage in writing string quartets, to think of new ways to develop the music which were then taken up by d other composers that we consider to be masters.

“Even as conductor and curator, he was responsible for commissioning major works like Haydn’s symphonies. But when we study this directory, his name cannot be found. Then one has to ask why was this person specifically erased from these facts? »

In 2020, Balter wrote a New York Times opinion column titled His Name Is Joseph Boulogne, Not “Black Mozart”. The new film seems sure to invite new comparisons between the composers as well as between itself and Miloš Forman’s Oscar-winning Amadeus from 1984.

Balter says: “Mozart is a wonderful composer. I love Mozart’s music so my reaction to Mozart as an artist and as an influence in history remains intact. He’s a great figure. To say that Bologna is a great figure does not mean that Mozart was not. This only means that this artist should not be spoken of as the shadow of this other. It is not an or/or. It’s an and.

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