Written by Miho Nasu, Byron Schenkman & Friends Volunteer
Joseph Bologne was an 18th century virtuoso violinist, accomplished composer, champion fencer, and leader of all-Black regiment in the French Revolution. A well-deserved spotlight is about to shine upon on his formidable life when “Chevalier” appears in movie theaters on April 21st. Fingers crossed that this movie lives up to our high expectations!
Joseph Bologne, aka the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was born on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe on December 25, 1745, the son of French plantation owner and an enslaved woman of Senegalese descent. From the age of eight, Joseph was educated in France and earned his first fame as one of the best fencers in Europe; subsequently, he was appointed as an officer of the King Louis XV’s guard and given the knight title “Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges.”
Joseph Bologne’s musical career was launched in 1769, when he joined Les Concert des Amateurs in Paris as first violin. In 1772, he made a sensational debut as a soloist with the orchestra playing two violin concertos of his own composition. In 1773, he was named the conductor of the orchestra and with his leadership, the orchestra grew to be regarded as the finest orchestra in Paris.
Over a short span of time between 1771 and 1779, Joseph Bologne composed and published numerous operas, string quartets, concertos, and symphonies and well established himself as a composer in the musical scene of Paris. After Les Concert des Amateurs was disbanded in 1781, Bologne became the director of the newly formed orchestra, the Concert de la Loge Olympique. He continued to perform all his violin concertos as a soloist while he also conducted the orchestra.
Queen Marie Antoinette, an accomplished musician herself frequented his concerts.
At one concert in 1786, Joseph Bologne conducted the premiere of Joseph Hayden’s Six Paris Symphonies, which he had commissioned Haydn to write for his orchestra.
During the French Revolution, Bologne served as a colonel and brigadier general of the Légion Nationale des Américains et du Midi, later known as the Légion Saint-Georges. This was the first European regiment consisting entirely of Black soldiers. During the Reign of Terror, his former close ties with the aristocracy made him a target of suspicion and he faced imprisonment without trial.
Upon his return to Paris, in 1797, he became director of a new orchestra, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, which performed in the former residence of the Duke of Orleans. He died in June 1799 at the age of 53.
Joseph Bologne’s 18th century achievements were extraordinary, especially considering racist barriers that prevented him from being recognized as an equal to his white peers. BS&F invites you to enjoy this 2021 recording of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ Sonata no1 in B flat Major (published in 1781) – performed by Ingrid Matthews (violin) and Byron Schenkman (harpsichord).