Wednesday, May 6, 2020 The Most Interesting Man in the World [Joseph Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799)]

"Fencing Match between St. Georges and 'La chevaliere D'Eon' on April 9, 1787" by Alexandre-Auguste Robineau

public domain

By Tyler Alderson

May 6, 2020

Has Tom Brady written a symphony? Did Michael Jordan fight in a revolution? For Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, being a great athlete, composer, and warrior was just the tip of the iceberg.

If Dos Equis had to pick a real-life mascot for their “Most Interesting Man in the World” ads, there would be only one worthy choice, in my opinion: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. We know him best as a composer who wrote music like this, the overture to his opera The Anonymous Lover:

In 18th-century France, though, he was Tom Brady, Andris Nelsons, Muhammad Ali, and General Patton all rolled into one. From being the greatest athlete in the country to being so famous as a musician that even Mozart couldn’t get a note in edgewise in Paris, Joseph Bologne had plenty of star power. Along the way, he also managed to lead Europe’s first all-black regiment and become one of the continent’s leading abolitionist voices. And he did it all while facing a society that all too often wanted to judge him for the color of his skin rather than his remarkable talent and character. 

Bologne, the Athletic Star
Joseph Bologne was born in 1745 on the island of Guadeloupe, the son of a wealthy French settler and a young slave. Most children in the same situation were immediately disavowed by their fathers, if they were even acknowledged in the first place. According to the laws in place at the time, he would have been born a slave just like his mother, and potentially fated to a hard life toiling in the sugar plantations.
Joseph’s mother, though, made sure that Joseph was protected from that difficult life. His father provided for the two of them, and when Joseph was a young boy they moved to France. Despite harshly racist laws that forced black people to register with police and restricted their rights, his father was able to get him into an elite private school in Paris, where he studied alongside the sons of aristocracy.

One thing was apparent from an early age: Joseph Bologne was very, very special. As a teenager he made a name for himself as one of the best all-around athletes in the country. According to contemporary accounts, he could shoot individual buttons off of a coat, swim across the Seine with one hand tied behind his back, and beat just about anyone in the boxing ring. Running, ice skating, and horseback riding rounded out his remarkable list of athletic strengths.
One sport, though, stood above all else: fencing. Seen as the pastime of noblemen and warriors, fencing was a ticket to fame and acceptance in the most elite circles of French high society. As you might have guessed from his other talents, Bologne was the best fencer that anyone had ever seen. One of his friends and fellow fencers would later write that “no one ever in the art of fencing displayed more grace or more steadiness. He had superb style… As one sees him, Saint-Georges had arrived at an ideal perfection, which up to the present has not been attained by anyone [else].”

He gained even more fame after a match with fencing master Alexandre Picard, who had taunted him with racial slurs and derogatory comments. Spectators wondered whether a man from a supposedly inferior race could beat a French aristocrat in such a noble sport. As it turns out, he could, and he did!
Bologne, the Musical Genius
Joseph Bologne’s athletic exploits may have made him a star, but he was just getting started. While his musical education isn’t as well documented as his fencing, he apparently learned to play the violin as a young boy. By his early 20s, some of the leading composers in France were dedicating pieces to him. He was also known as a master of the harpsichord, and soon turned his attention to conducting and composing.

Bologne’s most popular compositions today are his violin concertos. Filled with wonderful melodies and devilishly difficult to play, they show a composer and performer at the height of his powers. He also wrote a number of hit operas, and was among the first French composers to write for string quartet. As a conductor, he commissioned six symphonies by Joseph Haydn, premiering them to audiences that included Queen Marie Antoinette.

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