Wednesday, July 22, 2020 His Name Is Joseph Boulogne, Not ‘Black Mozart’ An 18th-century polymath has had his brilliant music and life diminished by a demeaning nickname.

Monsieur De St George

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The New York Times

Last month, Searchlight Pictures announced plans for a movie about Joseph Boulogne, the 18th-century composer also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

When the announcement was made, headlines resurrected yet another moniker for Boulogne: “Black Mozart.” Presumably intended as a compliment, this erasure of Boulogne’s name not only subjugates him to an arbitrary white standard, but also diminishes his truly unique place in Western classical music history.

Few musicians have led a life as fascinating and multifaceted as Boulogne’s. Recounting it, however, is an exercise in educated guesswork. What is known is scantily and contradictorily documented, when not purely anecdotal. To make matters worse, a 19th-century novel by Roger de Beauvoir, “Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges,” intertwined fact and fiction so seamlessly that many of its fabrications gradually found a place in Boulogne’s assumed biography.

What we know is that Boulogne, the illegitimate son of a wealthy French plantation owner and an enslaved African-Guadeloupean woman, was born between 1739 and ’49 on the island of Basse-Terre, the western half of the archipelago of Guadeloupe. When he was about 10, he and his mother followed his father and the rest of his legitimate family back to France, where Boulogne was enrolled in elite schools and received private lessons in music and fencing.

His first claim to fame, in fact, was as a champion fencer, the best-known disciple of the renowned master La Boëssière. A painting depicting a match between Boulogne and the Chevalier d’Éon remains on display at Buckingham Palace.

Boulogne’s extraordinary fencing talent led Louis XV to name him Chevalier de Saint-Georges, after his father’s noble title, even though France’s Code Noir prohibited Boulogne from officially inheriting the title because of his African ancestry. He earned a nearly mythical status even across the Atlantic: John Adams described him as “the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, shooting, fencing, dancing and music.”

Very little is known about Boulogne’s musical training. But when François-Joseph Gossec, one of France’s pioneering symphony writers and most prominent conductors, founded the Concert des Amateurs series in 1769, he invited Boulogne to join its orchestra, first as a violinist and later as its concertmaster.
Boulogne’s first documented compositions are from 1770 and ’71. While these are clearly works by a composer still searching for his voice, they already demonstrate his commitment to the new and unexplored. The six string quartets of his Opus 1 were among the first in that genre to be written in France. His three sonatas for keyboard and violin (Op. 1a) feature those instruments as equals, breaking away from the Baroque tradition of basso continuo, which was still very much in vogue. His harmonies, textures and formal schemes place him within a Classical style that was still in the process of forming.

His first public and critical success as a composer came with his two violin concertos (Op. 2), which premiered in 1772 at the Concert des Amateurs series, featuring Boulogne himself as soloist. The level of craft and sophistication in these pieces far surpass his efforts of the previous two years. The particularly beautiful Largo movement of the second concerto already features many trademarks of his later style, including a penchant for whimsical colors that run the range of instruments and an understanding of how to balance orchestral forces with clarity.

When Gossec was invited to direct the Concert Spirituel series in 1773, he named his concertmaster as his successor. Under Boulogne’s direction, the Concert des Amateurs orchestra became widely regarded as the best in France, if not all of Europe. His raised profile as a conductor led to an invitation in 1775 to apply for the directorship of the Académie Royal de Musique, the country’s most prominent musical position. His candidacy, however, was crushed by a petition to Marie Antoinette from a group of performers who objected to “accepting orders from a mulatto.”

Also in 1775, he wrote two symphonies concertantes for two violins and orchestra (Op. 6), his initial contribution to a genre he and other French composers of the time helped define. A hybrid of the Baroque concerto grosso and the Classical concerto, a symphonie concertante usually featured two or more soloists in a virtuosic dialogue that emulated a musical duel. Boulogne wrote eight such pieces between 1775 and ’78, a testament to the demand for them among French audiences.

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