Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
b Baillif, Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe, December 25, 1745; d Paris, France, June 10, 1799
Born on Christmas Day, 1745 in the French colony of Guadeloupe, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was the son of Georges de Bologne de Saint- Georges, a nobleman and politician, and Anne Nanon, a sixteen-year-old Senegalese person enslaved to him. Little is known of Bologne’s earliest years, but the Code noir, a 1685 decree that outlined racial relations throughout the French empire, defined him a slave under the law and sharply limited his participation in society.
Though he spent the first seven years of his life on one of his father’s plantations in the Caribbean, Joseph and Anne were relocated to France by Georges; there he matriculated into the Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de l’équitation, where he excelled at fencing and horseback riding. Among experts, he was considered to be among the finest swordsmen in all of Europe, only suffering one defeat in a serious fencing match throughout his career. Though French law did not permit him to inherit his father’s social status, he was accorded the formal title of Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges — as well as his membership in the Gendarmes de la Garde du Roi, France’s Royal Guard — as a result of his equestrian success.
Joseph received a courtly music education while in France, though its specific details have been lost to the historical record. An exceptional student, his talent and skill on the harpsichord and violin earned him dedications from influential composers like Antonio Lolli, who composed two concerti for him. A virtuoso on the violin, Bologne was regarded as one of the most sought-after musicians in prerevolutionary Paris, and subsequently became concertmaster and conductor of Le Concert des Amateurs, a company known for organizing popular concert series around France.
His compositions were well known during his lifetime. His string quartets were among the first performed and published in France. When an opportunity to manage the Royal Academy of Music at Paris Opera arose, Bologne put his name forth for consideration. This bid failed when two company sopranos, along with other artists, objected to working for a Black man. Instead, he went on to direct the prestigious musical theater of the Marquise de Montesson. During this time, he became a prolific composer, publishing two symphony concertantes in 1776 and two more in 1778, as well as three violin concerti and six string quartets in 1777. He also wrote three operas between 1777 and 1780, including The Anonymous Lover. Many of his other compositions, including at least three more operas, have been lost throughout the years.
Bologne’s life was exceptional. He was a leader, a war hero, a “god of arms,” a virtuosic instrumentalist, and a prolific composer whose work was popular during his time. He dueled the best in Europe and won, influenced the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and even played for, performed with, and taught Marie Antoinette. Despite his prodigious talents and extraordinary accomplishments, racism limited the opportunities available to him in his time and blunted the impact of his legacy in ours. Accordingly, we cherish this opportunity to share his work and life with you.
Join us in celebrating this groundbreaking Black composer and his delightful romantic comedy, The Anonymous Lover, February 5-13, 2022.