The great Chevalier | On this day

Born in Guadeloupe to a white plantation owner and an enslaved Senegalese mother, the life of Joseph Bologne — better known as “Chevalier” and the “Black Mozart” — was nothing short of extraordinary. On the 225th anniversary of his death, James Ferguson revisits the story of this remarkable conductor, composer, violinist, fencer, and soldier that history almost forgot

  • Photo courtesy WikiMedia Commons
  • Kelvin Harrison Jr stars as Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, in the 2022 biopic Chevalier directed by Stephen Williams
  • A scene from Chevalier. LANDMARK MEDIA/Alamy Stock Photo

The biopic Chevalier — which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022 — is a glittering visual treat. Amidst the sumptuous settings of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s court — where powdered wigs, tiaras, and exquisite gallantries barely conceal the ugliness of a decaying monarchy — it tells the story of the charismatic and ambitious Joseph Bologne.

The son of an enslaved woman from the French territory of Guadeloupe, he also happened to be a supremely gifted violinist and composer (a rival to Mozart), a celebrated fencer and duellist — and, of course, irresistibly good-looking.

At first sight, this seems improbable — a far-fetched rewriting of history that allows a free man of colour (gens de couleur libres was the French term) to rub shoulders with the French aristocracy, and Marie Antoinette herself.

Records suggest that in pre-Revolutionary Paris, the Black and mixed-race population numbered a few hundred — almost all servants or exotic appendages to wealthy families. Slavery still flourished in France’s Caribbean colonies; the revolutionary uprising in Saint-Domingue was yet to begin; and draconian laws restricted the rights of mixed-race individuals. So the film’s depiction of Joseph’s stellar career — despite its frequent references to prejudice and racism — verges on the incredible.

And yet, strangely, the “real” Joseph Bologne achieved all the above — and much more.

Bologne was an accomplished musician, excelled at fencing, and mingled with the elites of the ancien régime. He also travelled to London to exhibit his skill with the épée (a duelling sword) in front of the Prince of Wales, joined the Revolution in 1790, fought as a volunteer against the Austrians, and spent time in jail during the Terror.

Chevalier cannot include every detail of this remarkable life, but it succeeds in resurrecting its hero for a modern audience.

Joseph was born on Christmas Day 1745 in Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe, the illegitimate son of the white planter Georges Bologne de Saint-Georges, and Nanon — a 17-year-old slave from Senegal. Unusually, his father recognised him and brought him up, taking him to France in 1753.

After boarding school, Joseph attended a fencing academy in Paris, famously beating an older swordsman who had mocked him as “an upstart mulatto” in a much-publicised contest. This led to joining the king’s bodyguard and the adoption of the honorific title Chevalier de Saint-Georges. When his father died in 1774, Joseph — as an illegitimate son — was disqualified from inheriting the titles of nobility, but he and Nanon (who lived with him) were left an annuity.

Joseph was also a musical prodigy, and his ambitions lay in performing and composing with the various orchestras patronised by the court and aristocracy. The opening scene of Chevalier shows Joseph engaged in an intense violin duel with none other than Mozart, the two exchanging solos like prototype rock stars.

This is pure licence, but Joseph’s violin concertos were well received and his performances with the Concert des Amateurs were sensational — “enrapturing especially the feminine members of his audience”, wrote one commentator.

He wrote operas and conducted symphonies by Haydn, some of these concerts attended by Queen Marie Antoinette. When the directorship of the Paris Opera became vacant in 1776, Joseph had high hopes of taking the post.

Was Joseph written out of his rightful place in the history of classical music by design, or was he a victim of the chaotic period of French history from the end of the monarchy and through the turbulent Napoleonic regime?

But in a development that was a brutal reminder of the status quo, three of the Opera’s leading ladies presented a petition to the Queen asserting that their “honour and delicate conscience” could never allow them to “submit to the orders of a mulatto”. Marie Antoinette, to Joseph’s chagrin, remained silent on the matter — and the office was given to a rival.

This snub, on explicitly racist grounds, seems to mark a turning point in Joseph’s career. He carried on performing for the nobility in salons and private concert halls, and he continued to compose — but patrons died, orchestras were disbanded, and Joseph found himself reduced to living in a small apartment in Paris. Worse still, in May 1779 he was seriously assaulted one night by unknown assailants. Rumour had it that a jealous husband had discovered an affair and sought revenge.

Chevalier, for obvious reasons, makes much of Joseph’s love life — but here again there is a good deal of truth. His rejection of the influential diva Marie-Madeleine Guimard’s advances is thought to have led to his setback at the Paris Opera, while his affair with the Marquise de Montalembert — a major thread in the film’s plot — may well have caused the mysterious attack ordered by her powerful husband. Whether the adulterous couple had a child, as depicted for dramatic effect, is doubtful.

Two trips to London and the impending Revolution awakened a political consciousness that Joseph had, until then, successfully suppressed. In England, he made contact with leading abolitionists and moved in liberal and expatriate circles supportive of France’s growing Republican movement.

He was abroad during the early months of the Revolution, but was in the northern city of Lille in the summer of 1790 — fencing, composing, and performing a new opera. Then in 1791, he volunteered to join the revolutionary National Guard, taking a senior role in the formation of a new “Free American Legion” comprising mixed-race volunteers — mostly refugees from Saint-Domingue, which by now was in the throes of a bloody uprising.

This latter period of Joseph’s turbulent life is frustratingly less documented than the earlier decades, so does not feature in Chevalier (which ends with the rising tide of street violence that led to the storming of the Bastille in July 1789).

The confusing near-anarchy that swept through revolutionary France claimed many victims, and Joseph came close to the guillotine in 1793 on vague charges of sympathy for the ancien régime. Now, tellingly, he signed correspondence as “Georges” — dropping aristocratic trappings in the new age of equality.

After some years in which he found some consolation in composing, Joseph died in Paris 225 years ago, in June 1799. He was 53. He did not live to see the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, nor Haiti’s rebirth out of its decade-long struggle for freedom or — less auspiciously — Bonaparte’s reimposition of slavery in Guadeloupe and elsewhere in 1802.

Piecing together Joseph Bologne’s life and career is an exercise in disentangling the man from the myth. Writing in 2020 in The New York Times, Professor Marcos Balter of Columbia University observed accurately that, “What is known is scantily and contradictorily documented, when not purely anecdotal.”

Part of the blame, he says, must lie with the 19th-century novelist Roger de Beauvoir, whose 1840 potboiler Le chevalier de Saint-Georges “intertwined fact and fiction so seamlessly that many of its fabrications gradually found a place in Bologne’s assumed biography”.

Perhaps this sensationalist account deterred others from producing more measured assessments of Bologne’s achievements. But there is also a suspicion that the racism that blocked Joseph’s appointment to the directorship of the Paris Opera also stood in the way of a proper appreciation of his talents as a composer and musical performer.

As an innovative composer of string quartets, a noted conductor, and somebody with the status to commission symphonies from Haydn, he was clearly a major figure in contemporary Parisian cultural circles.

“But when we study this repertoire,” says Professor Balter, “his name is nowhere to be seen. Then one has to ask oneself, why has this person specifically been erased from these facts?” Look no further than the “Eurocentric legacy” that determines who is considered important for posterity.

Was Joseph written out of his rightful place in the history of classical music by design, or was he a victim of the chaotic period of French history from the end of the monarchy and through the turbulent Napoleonic regime?

Napoleon, described by Marlene L Daut in a recent New York Times editorial as “a racist and genocidal warmonger”, was evidently not someone who would have encouraged a positive evaluation of Joseph’s musical legacy. Two decades of obscurity after Joseph’s death may have meant he then became more permanently neglected.

Until now, that is.

Chevalier, for all its embellishments and flights of fancy, is a valuable and watchable account of a life led in one of the most dramatic periods of European — and Caribbean — history. Two revolutions, in France and Haiti, marked a seismic shift in Europe and the Americas, and the film brings into focus the very moment when the old order is about to disappear.

The film sympathetically explores Joseph’s status as a person of colour — inspiring but ultimately vulnerable in a deeply racist society. The “Black Mozart” is probably hyperbole, and experts disagree on his prowess as a composer. But — full of delicious spectacle — Chevalier is a worthy exploration of prejudice, and an introductory insight into the dying days of the French monarchy.

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