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Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Fencer, composer, soldier, Versailles

cropped colour portrait of Joseph Bologne, who wears a read jacket and holds a sword
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Adrian Murphy (se deschide într-o fereastră nouă) (Europeana Foundation)

Joseph Bologne - known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges - was an 18th century classical composer and conductor and champion fencer. His mixed race heritage - son of a white father and Black mother - shaped his life in in Parisienne and French society in the 1700s.

seated black and white portrait of Chevalier de Saint George, who holds a sword

Born in 1745 in Guadelope, Joseph Bologne was the son of Anne (known as Nanon), an enslaved woman of Senegalese origin, and Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, who was Nanon's enslaver. Despite Nanon being the enslaved servant to his wife Elisabeth, Georges de Bologne acknowledged being the young Joseph's father and gave him his surname, part of which - 'de Saint-Georges' - was named after his plantations in Guadeloupe.

In 1753, Georges took Joseph - then aged 7 - to France to be educated. Joseph was sent to a boarding school, while his father returned to Guadeloupe. Two years later, Georges and Nanon came to France, and moved to an apartment in Paris's Saint Germain neighbourhood.

Up to this point, in French society, Georges Bologne had been a commoner. In 1757, this changed when he was given the title Gentilhomme ordinaire de la chambre du roi (Gentleman of the King's Chambe

Joseph benefitted greatly from his father's position in society. However, due to Les Codes Noirs - racist laws in France which restricted the lives of people of colour from the 17th century - young Joseph was not eligible to inherit his father's titles, because of his mixed race heritage and his parents not being married.

All of these contexts contributed to the three careers and pursuits that Joseph simultaneously followed through his adult life: fencing athlete, the military and music composer.

Fencing

From age 13, Joseph attended the Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de l'équitation, where he learned fencing and horsemanship.

He progressed well, and within a few years, had become a champion fencer and accomplished horseman. His arms were described as being faster than lightning. Joseph fought many duels and matches in France, as well as in England.

His sporting exploits - as well as being a charismatic and handsome man - made him famous, and he becomes a darling of Parisian society.

black and white illustration of the Chevalier de Saint Georges greeting a woman

Military career

When he graduated in 1766, Joseph was made a Gendarme du roi (Officer of the King's bodyguard) and a chevalier, a member of orders of knighthood. From then on, Joseph would be known as the 'Chevalier de Saint-Georges'.

colour illustration of Joseph Bologne who wears a blue coat and carries a sword

The French Revolution began in 1789, and deeply affected Joseph's later life. He decided to enlist in the Revolutionary Army, fighting for liberty and equality.

In September 1792, a cavalry of volunteers from the West Indies and Africa was founded, with Joseph serving as a colonel. It was called the Légion nationale des Américains & du midi but was often later referred to as the Légion Saint-Georges due to Joseph's outstanding performance. It was the first all-Black army regiment in Europe.

One of the officers under his command was named Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, future general-in-chief in the French army and father of the author of the Three Musketeers.

However, this career was often beset by accusations by others. Soon after being appointed colonel, he had to defend his role from accusations that he used military money to pay personal debts (most of which were based on rumours). An inquiry cleared Joseph of all charges.

Later, during the Terror - when French revolutionaries turn on their own forces, suspecting them of royalist sympathies - Joseph was dismissed and imprisoned for 18 months. He was also condemned by critics for being involved in non-revolutionary activities such as music.

Following this, he returned to Guadelope and attempted to regain his military rank and regiment. He eventually was re-appointed colonel of the regiment, but there were already two other colonels in the regiment. Eventually, Joseph's military career ended in 1795.

Musical achievements

In 1769, the Parisian public was amazed to see Joseph - known as a great fencer and athlete - playing violin in Le Concert des Amateurs, Gossec's orchestra with 70 members. Four years later, Joseph became its conductor. It was ultimately disbanded in 1781 due to a lack of funding.

black and white photograph of a sculptural bust of Joseph Bologne, with a violin against his chin

Over his long musical career, Joseph wrote many symphonies, sonatas, concertos, opera and string quartets.

title page of a book with black text and illustrations

In 1776, Joseph was proposed as the next director of the Paris Opéra, which was struggling financially and artistically. However, three of the leading ladies presented a petition to Queen Marie Antoinette saying that they would not be able to take orders from a mixed race person. Marie Antoinette had been known to attend some of Joseph's concerts, and to keep the affair from embarrassing the queen, he withdrew his name from consideration.

One year later, his first opera Ernestine premiered at the Comédie Italien. However, critical reception is not kind, and it closed after the premiere.

Following this, Marie-Antoinette preferred to experience music in less public settings. In her salon in Versailles, she limited the audience to her intimate circle and a few musicians. The Chevalier de Saint-Georges was invited to play music with the Queen, with he most likely paying the violin while she played the forte-piano.

Legacy

On June 10, 1799, Saint-Georges died of bladder disease. Over the two centuries since he lived, memory of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges faded. Many of his musical compositions were lost to history as a result of the French Revolution, though a large body of work can still be enjoyed now.

Today, Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is best remembered as one of the earliest classical composer of mixed race and African ancestry, as well as a ground-breaking military leader.

Music France Black history Sport