Brief History of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges


     In honour of Black Heritage Month KnoxVan Events wanted to take a look a lesser known composer and musician that was highlighted by one of our Instrumental Measures groups last year.

     The Gallo Chamber Players highlighted the work of composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges who was a Parisian composer of African descent. Saint-Georges led an interesting and full life of multiple achievements including a highly skilled fencer (even noted as one of the finest swordsmen in Europe) as well as a military leader in addition to accomplished musician.

     Born in 1745 to his mother, Elizabeth Francoise and his father George de Bologne Saint-Georges who was a Gentleman of the King’s Bedchamber. Not much is known about his mother beyond that she was a young slave of Senegalese heritage and was George’s mistress. At odds with the social standards of the time, George allowed Joseph to use his last name and even hired private tutors for him to be educated.  

     His father decided when Joseph turned 13 had that he intended Joseph to join the military as a career and so he sent him to study with the Master of Arms, La Boëssière whose son was also became a famous swordsman. Joseph excelled immensely with his training with Boëssière and it was consistently noted by peers and teachers who were awed by his skills, talent and grace.

     In regards to when he started his musical talents not much is known for sure. While it would be common for children of higher society to learn some music skills it isn’t mentioned in any records that this was the case. There are claims that he studied violin with Platon who his father’s estate manager, and later when he was in France, he attended classes with Leclair.

     Joseph’s father was a beloved patron of musicians and Carl Stamitz even dedicated his Six Orchestral Quartets Op. to him. Stamitz is quoted “To Monsieur Bologne de St-Georges, who brings to his good fortune as a lover of the arts the pleasure of also understanding them, and who has given us artists an invaluable gift in the person of his son”.

     Joseph is noted to have become First Violin in the Concert des Amateurs in 1769 and grew in his skill so quickly that by the time he was 24 he had taken over the position of Director for the orchestra for 8 years.

     Joseph continued to excel and be active in both music and fencing through-out his lifetime and gained more achievements in both worlds.

     Joseph was able to gain many advantages through his skills and charm as well as the good-will that his father provided him with. However, being a man who was of mixed race he was still not able to obtain legal rights equal to that of his white father and faced discrimination on all levels of society. When the revolution proclaimed equality of all men, Joseph joined the cause and became a Colonel of a corps of troops for a short period of time.

     Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is an individual who regarded many different aspects of life as important and worked his entire life enjoying and working towards bettering himself and society. Please take a moment to enjoy some of his work that ripples through to today via The Gallo Chamber Players and their rendition of one of the violin duets he composed.

You can find The Gallo Chamber Player’s full Instrumental Measures concert here along with more information about the group and their line up.