Joseph Boulogne Quick With the Sword, Even Faster on a Trill
Chevalier de Saint-Georges Joseph Boulogne
Chevalier de Saint-Georges Joseph Boulogne was born in Guadeloupe, a French Caribbean colony, in 1745. He was the illegitimate child of Georges de Boulogne Saint-Georges, a French plantation owner, and his mother Anne but called Nanon, was a Senegalese slave maid to his father's wife. His father, George de Boulogne Saint-Georges, was a former Gentleman of King Louis XV Bedchamber and a substantial planter at Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe. His mother, Nanon, was considered "one of the most beautiful women that Africa has ever sent to the plantations." In 1753, Joseph's father took him to France to have a better chance to thrive and learn without the prejudice and discrimination he would have experienced as mixed-race in the colonies. When he was 13, he enrolled in Tessier de La Bo*ssière's Academy of Royal Polytechnic des armes et de l'équitation for fencing and riding. By the age of 17, he excelled at swordsmanship and had developed the most extraordinary speed imaginable. Joseph became an officer in the king's guard at age 17. He was given the title of "Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges," after his father's noble title. John Adams later described him as "the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, shooting, fencing, dancing, and music."
Unfortunately, French law did not allow Joseph Boulogne to be a member of the nobility because his mother was of African descent. The Code Noir had governed France and its colonial colonies since the 17th century, and King Louis XV declared on April 5, 1762, that "Nègres et gens de couleur" (blacks and persons of color) must register with the registrar of the Admiralty within two months of the date of this decree. Like Voltaire, many of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment believed assumptions that Africans and their generations were not as good as White Europeans. Because of these regulations and racist views, Joseph Bologne could not marry at his social level, but he did have at least one meaningful romantic relationship.
According to early reports of Saint-Georges' life, he initially played violin with Platon, his father's estate manager, and then had lessons with Leclair and Lolli in France. He was also professionally connected with Gossec, who may have taught him how to compose. In 1769, Les Concerts des Amateurs invited him to join the orchestra as a violinist. The orchestra was astonished when he played two violin concerti, and they extended him an invitation to become the orchestra's concertmaster. During his time as concertmaster, the orchestra flourished and was considered one of the best in Paris. His talent was revered by many of the noblest in Paris who attended his orchestra performances, including Queen Marie Antoinette. By 1775, Saint-Georges had established himself as a composer, performer, and orchestra conductor such that he was considered for the position of artistic director of the Royal Academy of Music at the Opéra. He declined the position after three of the company's top sopranos wrote to the queen, saying they did not want to work for a mixed-race person.
At the Comédie-Italiane in 1777, he premiered his first opera, Ernestine. However, the opera was not well-received and only solicited a single performance. This second opera, entitled La Partie de Chasse (The Hunting Party), premiered in the same theater in 1778 and was a significant success but not frequently performed throughout history. The Anonymous Lover, his third opera, premiered in 1780 at the private theater of the Marquise de Montesson, the wife of the Duke of Orléans. In 1781, Les Concerts des Amateurs were dismantled due to financial reasons; Saint-Georges created the Concert de la Loge Olympique, for which Count D'ogny commissioned Haydn to write his famous set of six "Paris" symphonies. The composer oversaw the debut of the six symphonies toward the end of 1787, and he composed the music for Le Marchand de Marrons (The Chestnut Vendor), based on a text by Mme. De Genlis for the Théâtre Beaujolais, a marionette theater for children. The Opéra's principal vocalists voiced the puppets. During this time, Saint-Georges maintained his fencing prowess, performing in exhibition matches to support himself financially. He was not considered a prolific composer for the time. Still, he amassed two symphonies, several operas, concertos, concerti, and small ensembles works.
Saint-Georges also participated in the abolitionist edict of France. Phillippe Duke of Orleans and Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville, France's chief of staff, sent him to England. The Prince of Wales had long longed to meet Saint-Georges, and s Saint-Georges' background as a "man of color" made him a perfect candidate for informing London's abolitionist community about Brissot's plans for Les Amis des Noirs (Friends of Blacks), a French anti-slavery. Saint-George met with several British abolitionists on a trip to London who cooperated by translating their material into French for their young Société des amis des Noirs.
Saint-Georges was the first to sign up for the Revolutionary Army on August 26, 1789, when the revolution established equal rights for all French citizens. The light cavalry he led was called "Légion Franche de cavalerie des Américains et du Midi." However, it was later referred to as "Légion St-Georges" because of the outstanding performance of Colonel Saint-Georges. During the early 1790s, critics condemned Saint-Georges for being involved in non-revolutionary activities, such as music events, and he was dismissed from his position and imprisoned for 18 months. Eventually, he was released but did not resume command. Despite St. George's appeal, he was prohibited from contacting his former comrades. Unemployed once more, Saint-Georges led a nomadic existence until returning to St. Domingue, where a fierce civil war was raging between revolutionary forces and those seeking to restore the old system, including the resumption of slavery. Saint-Georges was deeply dissatisfied by what he witnessed in St-Domingue, and he returned to France disillusioned and befuddled.
As part of his petition for rejoining the service in 1797, Saint-Georges signed his name "George." Saint-Georges summarized his service in the Revolutionary Army as follows:
"I have constantly demonstrated my loyalty to the revolution. I have served it since the beginning of the war with a tireless zeal that is undiminished by the persecutions I have. I have no other resource but that of being reinstated in my rank". As a result of Saint-George's failed attempt to join the revolution, he returned to Paris, where he took charge of an orchestra called Le Cercle de l'Harmonie, which played in the former home of the Duke of Orleans. Two years after obtaining this post, he died in 1799 at 53 from issues related to his bladder.