In 1778, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a name synonymous with musical genius, wrote ‘The Sinfonia Concertante in E flat (K364)’. The piece, still known to be one of the Austrian legend’s greatest works, was a result of his influences during his tour of Europe, with a longish halt in Paris — a significant cultural centre of the time.
There is a passage in the symphony that is neither usual in the music of the time nor common to Mozart’s work. It was a complicated sequence of notes, that climbed up to the highest point in a crescendo and then ducked down dramatically. Musicologists found striking similarities in Mozart’s passage with another significant passage in a Parisian musician’s work composed in 1777. The difference was that the latter’s work was just half a tone higher. The note structures are, otherwise, identical. It’s the most direct influence that Mozart took from this Parisian musician, whose name was Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
One of the greatest musicians in Europe in the 18th century, Saint-Georges was the first western classical musician of colour in history. The two musicians had come across each other in Paris, in the house of Count Sickingen, and also spent time under one roof at art critic and diplomat Melchior Grimm’s house.
Slavery was still rampant in Europe and the rights of people of colour were far from being recognised. But Saint-Georges was an aberration, a master composer held in high esteem in France. “Parisians adored him and he turned Paris into the mecca of symphony,” says Gabriel Banat, musician and Saint-Georges’ biographer in Le Mozart Noir (2003), a TV documentary on the life of the musician.
Recently, when Searchlight Pictures announced a film on Saint-Georges, to be directed by American screenwriter Stephani Robinson, the musician was back in the news, a little more this time due to the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter movement.
To call Saint-Georges a brilliant classical musician, and then refer to him as the “Black Mozart” is seen as a denigration of his memory and talent. He was senior to Mozart by a decade and had inspired the latter directly.
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The son of a white sugar-and-coffee-plantation owner, Georges de Bologne, a minor aristocrat, and an African-Guadeloupean woman, who was Bologne’s wife’s personal maid, Saint-Georges was born in 1745 in Baillif in Guadeloupe, a cluster of islands in the Caribbean.
Saint-Georges’ father acknowledged his mistress and their son, gave him his surname, and brought them to Paris. Children born in mixed white and black ancestry were then often referred to by the derogatory term ‘Mulattos’.
Brush with Aristocracy
Saint-Georges’ father enrolled him in an elite boarding school in Paris. At 13, he was sent to The Royal Polytechnic Academy in Boëssière, one of the most reputed schools, to learn the art of fencing and horsemanship, two highly-respected aristocratic pastimes.
Proficiency in sport often offered a ticket to the upper echelons of society. By the time Saint-Georges was 15, he had made a name for himself, beating swordsmen of repute at fencing. At 17, he was challenged by fencing master Alexandre Picard, who had been mocking him as “Boëssière’s Mulatto” in front of an audience.
Saint-Georges won the duel. “The fact that he looked a certain way made him insecure… (It) also made him work harder than others to get recognised,” says Banat. He was protected majorly by his father’s title and later his. He was called Chevalier, a title equivalent to that of a knight in England.
Another aristocratic art form that was held in high regard then was classical music. Saint-Georges’ father employed noted teachers of the time to teach his son. The young boy did well, “almost transferring his right-hand sword technique to the bow,” says Banat.
In 1769, François-Joseph Gossec, a prominent conductor and symphony writer who is supposed to have also taught Saint-Georges, founded the Concert des Amateurs series, which featured some of the best musicians from around Europe in one orchestra. He invited Saint-Georges to join the orchestra to sit in as the first violinist. It was an unusual choice, but Saint-Georges delivered a performance that impressed patrons.
After mastering the repertoire of contemporary music, Saint-Georges began to compose. Most of his music was intricate and complex, with exciting bowing techniques. In 1773, he was invited to direct the Concert des Amateurs, marking his transformation from a musician to a composer. Soon, he was moving around in white aristocratic circles, with invitations to play at courts, including at Versailles — where he played with the queen, Mary Antoinette, and was befriended by her husband, King Louis XV. He also wrote some of the first string quartets in France.
Despite his rising social stature, Saint Georges suffered heartbreak on several occasions. He was invited to masked balls and salons owned by influential women of the time, where ladies of standing were fascinated by his music and his “exotic looks”. But, none of his series of romantic adventures progressed to a serious relationship.
His dark skin tone diminished his acceptability as a suitor for life. “In the society that he moved, he could never be considered eligible for matrimony,” says Banat in his biography of the musician.
When Saint-Georges finally found love in Mary Joseph, the wife of an old general, they had a son. But, according to Banat, on the orders of the General, the wet nurse neglected the baby and let him die. Saint-Georges was devastated. The despair came out in the second movement of Violin Concerto in D Major — a gentle offering with one note followed by three others — a requiem for his dead son.
In 1777, Saint-Georges decided to apply for one of the most notable musical positions in Paris — being the director of the Paris Opera. He was also the king’s favourite choice. But the members of the opera company weren’t happy. The leading ladies of the opera — three very influential women — wrote a letter to the queen about not wanting to “submit to a Mulatto”. The rejection was a public humiliation for Saint-Georges, especially because the position remained vacant as no capable enough musician could be found.
He decided to write operas still and composed seven of them. He also commissioned an important musician, who we now know as the legendary Joseph Haydn and the man instrumental in the development of chamber music such as the piano trio, to write what, in the future, were called Paris symphonies. Saint-Georges was the conductor for their world premiere.
Politics and the French Revolution
Saint-Georges had made friends with Philippe, the son of the Duke of Orleans, who was one the musician’s patrons, and, a close friend of the Prince of Wales. He was also the leader of the Orléanist party, the main opposition to the monarchy.
Saint-Georges was sent to London by Phillipe and he, too, became a close friend of the Prince of Wales. In 1790, when the first citizens’ army wanted volunteers, Saint-Georges enrolled himself, constantly giving concerts alongside his military duty. When a cavalry brigade of men of colour’ was authorised, Saint-Georges was promoted to the rank of colonel and was to command them. Among one of its officers was Thomas Alexandre Dumas, father of the legendary novelist who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.
Saint-Georges commanded the company of volunteers that held guard in Bassieux. After a few years of fighting, Saint-Georges was arrested and was incarcerated, without any charge, in the fortress of Hondainville in northern France. He was released after 13 months. He returned to Paris, which had lost most of its charm by then, and attempted to write a few more compositions.
In 1799, Saint-Georges died due to gangrene that set in an ulcer. While a lot of his music was lost during the Revolution, about a third of it remains and is being played and studied with renewed interest by classical musicians around the world.
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