Long before composers spent their non-composing hours in university classrooms or chasing down commissions and grants, many carried on lives of swashbuckling flamboyance. A young Beethoven took part in improvisatory piano duels, in which he vowed to crush his opponents. Wagner manned the revolutionary barricades in the Dresden uprising, while Paganini fomented a wild rumor about a deal with the devil.
But if ever there was a composer whose story seemed torn from an adventure novel, it was the prodigiously talented Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, regarded by scholars as the first Black composer of importance. The subject of an upcoming Hollywood biopic, he commanded an all-Black regiment during the French Revolution, spent 18 months in prison, led one of France’s top orchestras, excelled as a virtuoso violinist and champion fencer, and composed numerous concertos, symphonies, string quartets and operas.
In the third episode of CSO Sessions, brothers Matous and Simon Michal, violins in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, will present the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in A Major. The duo performance will be available on CSOtv, the orchestra’s streaming platform, beginning Oct. 15.
“It’s obvious in the duo that he was a virtuosic violinist,” said Matous Michal. “It’s very close to the style of Mozart and, especially, Haydn. He uses everything that they knew how to do on the violin at that time.” Michal adds that, even by the standards of 18th composers, he led a picaresque life. “We would ever think of Beethoven as somebody who did horseback riding?”
He was born in 1745 to Nanon, an enslaved woman from Senegal, and George Bologne, a wealthy sugar plantation owner in Guadaloupe, in the West Indies. At a time when many mixed-race children weren’t even acknowledged by their fathers, Joseph was treated as a fully member of the family. He rode horses bareback, spoke creole with other children, and likely heard music ranging from slave songs to a fife-and-drum corps at a nearby military barracks.
Recognizing that Joseph could not inherit his plantations, George took him to France at age 8, and five years later, enrolled him in an elite fencing academy. He became the prized pupil of master-of-arms La Boëssière, who taught him to be an 18th-century Parisian gentleman, ensuring that he took lessons in history, mathematics, fencing, riding and the violin. Joseph was also an accomplished dancer and swimmer, reportedly once swimming across the Seine with “one hand tied behind his back.”
As a teenager, he became such an agile swordsman that he was known throughout Europe and participated in dueling contests in Paris and London. In one match, he beat Alexandre Picard, a fencing-master of Rouen, who had taunted him as “La Boëssière’s upstart mulatto.” For his victory, his father rewarded him with a horse and buggy. At age 19, the composer was made a Gendarme de la Garde du Roi (“armed men of the king”), which brought him into contact with Louis XV, as well as the most exclusive salons and drawing rooms of Paris society (though he seems to have had several romantic liaisons, racial attitudes prevented him from marrying into this milieu). He took on the name Chevalier de Saint-Georges, in a nod to one of his father’s plantations.
Little is known about his early musical training, but biographers have speculated that he studied violin with Antonio Lolli and composition with François-Joseph Gossec, who hired him as a violinist with the Concert des Amateurs orchestra in 1769. Four years later, the violinist became its music director, and turned it into one of the finest orchestras in Europe. With the Amateurs, he performed his first two violin concertos (Op. 2). Gabriel Banat, in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, writes that these “reveal him to have been a prodigious virtuoso” and contain slow movements “with occasional touches of Creole nostalgia.”
Simon Michal says that he doesn’t detect any Caribbean influences in the A Major Sonata, but is struck by how well the music sits on the violin. “It’s very virtuosic in one way but much easier to play than Mozart,” he said. “It’s very [user] friendly.”
After the Amateurs orchestra was disbanded in 1781, the composer founded the Concert de la Loge Olympique, which played in the gardens of the Tuileries and at the behest of the Baron d’Ogny, commissioned Haydn’s six Paris Symphonies. He also wrote operas for the Duke of Orléans and was appointed Lieutenant de chasse at his hunting estate.
The most cinematic period in his life followed the outset of the French Revolution. Embracing the revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, he led an all-Black regiment of 800 infantrymen and 200 horsemen, known as the Legion Nationale des Americains et du Midi, to defend it. For reasons that remain murky — but perhaps owed to his involvement in non-revolutionary, musical activities — he was dismissed and imprisoned for 18 months. After release the composer-colonel fought a long but unsuccessful battle to regain his regiment.
“Even with the army position he was persecuted,” said Matous Michal. “Some stories from that time suggested that he was lavishly spending as a commander of the army. He had to go back to Paris to face a tribunal where he had to defend himself.” The composer was no stranger to intolerance. Years earlier, when the Paris Opéra sought to name him music director, a group of leading divas successfully petitioned Queen Marie Antoinette to spare them from “having them submit to the orders of a mulatto.”
The composer appears to have been musically active until near his death in 1799. Opportunities to assess his work are steadily emerging as more arts organizations recognize the unsung contributions of composers of color. “I’m not going to say that the sonata is at the same level as Mozart,” said Matous Michal, “but that’s because Mozart had the opportunity to polish his art.”
His brother, Simon, adds that the sonata offers a glimpse of the composer’s dashing personality. “Sure, composition-wise, the second part could have been more expansive and fuller. But it’s a very fun piece.”