By Benjamin Pesetsky
His equal was never seen in fencing, Charming musician, facile composer… And in each he found his own style.
These words described Joseph Bologne in 1788, near the height of his dual athletic and musical careers, on the eve of the French Revolution. Decades after his death, he appeared as a nearly mythological figure in a biographical novel called Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, heralded as “this man of combat, of good fortunes and of sighs, this unique man.”
Bologne was born on the Caribbean island of Base-Terre in Guadeloupe to Nanon, an enslaved woman. His father was George Bologne, a French plantation owner, who acknowledged Joseph as his son and gave him the family name. Two years later, George was accused of murder and fled to France with Joseph and Nanon (he was later cleared of the crime). By his early teens, Joseph was a skilled fencer, studying with the famed master La Boëssieère and winning important matches. At 19, he was knighted and given the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
Bologne was also studying music, likely with the composer François-Joseph Gossec. In his 20s, he became concertmaster of the Concert des Amateurs, one of the first orchestras in Europe to offer a public concert series outside of a nobleman’s court. In short order, he made his solo debut with his own violin concertos, and became the orchestra’s musical director. Over the following decade, he published 12 concertos, 10 symphonies, and two sets of string quartets. He also wrote operas and commissioned and premiered Joseph Haydn’s “Paris” Symphonies.
Bologne was a prominent member of Parisian society and even had his portrait painted by Mather Brown, whose subjects included future American presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. But when he was named director of the Paris Opéra, several company members complained to Queen Marie Antoinette that they would not take direction from someone of mixed race. Bologne withdrew from the position before he started, though Marie Antoinette invited him to perform at the Palais Royal as a kind of consolation.
In his 40s, Bologne’s world of French nobility ended in pools of blood and the monarchy was overthrown. Supporting the Republic, he led an all-Black cavalry unit and was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror before regaining his command. He returned to the violin, but after the Revolution, French music declined in the shadow of German Romanticism. Following Bologne’s death from an infection in 1799, his music was forgotten and then ignored for the better part of two centuries.
The 1970s brought renewed interest when Columbia Masterworks’ Black Composers Series dedicated its first LP to Bologne, and scholarly articles began to appear. More recently, as part of the growing acknowledgement of the contributions of Black classical musicians throughout history, his music has been regularly played in concert, and a new biopic titled Chevalier is screening at film festivals this fall.
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will perform Joseph Bologne's Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Hannah Ji in concerts October 7-8.
Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra.