Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Joseph Boulogne (1745-1799), the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, known as "le Mozart noir" or "the black Mozart," was one of the most enigmatic gentlemen at Versailles in the years immediately preceding the French Revolution. The son of a Caribbean slave woman, the chevalier's presence in the highest circles of society contradicts the view many people have of royal France being a place of restriction. On the contrary, the reign of Louis XVI was a truly open and diverse era, in which talent was rewarded and the gifted could go far. Marie-Antoinette called the chevalier "my favorite American" and asked that the gifted violinist and composer give her musical instruction; the king made Saint-Georges director of the Royal Opera House. A skilled athlete and swordsman, the chevalier also frequented the Palais Royal in Paris and was part of the coterie of the Duke of Orleans. With such company, it is not surprising that he became the first African French freemason and eventually fought for the revolutionary government. Nevertheless, he had so many aristocratic connections that his art was not as appreciated by the new regime as it had been by the royal family. The chevalier died four years after Louis and Antoinette were killed, in 1799.

A site dedicated to the Chevalier de Saint-Georges has the following to say about him:

The story of the Chevalier de Saint-George ("Knight of Saint-George") depicts the rise, fall, and rebirth of an athletic, musical, and military hero who became a superstar in 18th century France. Born on Christmas Day, 1745 in the French-Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, to a Senegalese slave and a French colonialist, Saint-George was a breakthrough composer and violin virtuoso who came to be called "Le Mozart Noir". He became the first black man to lead France`s most important orchestras. Saint-George was also Europe`s finest fencer, a master horseman, elite musketeer, infamous playboy, and a Colonel who led an army in the French Revolution. Described by poets of his day as a "French Hercules", "a veritable Mars", and a "rival of Apollo", Saint-George stands out as one of the most extraordinary figures of the 18th century.

The "King of Pop" of his age, Saint-George`s celebrity was known throughout Europe and word of his fame eventually reached the U.S. John Adams, the 2nd U.S. President, was reportedly given an account of Saint-George by one of his aides: "He is the most accomplished man in Europe, in riding, running, shooting, fencing, dancing, music. He will hit the button - any button on the coat or waistcoat of the greatest masters. He will hit a crown-piece in the air with a pistol-ball."

Truly a fascinating character and it is a shame that he and his music are not more widely known.



Anonymous said...

He sounds like he was really something! Now I am really curious to hear some of his music....I wonder where I can find an example of it played online?

elena maria vidal said...

This site has some audio clips.

Anonymous said...

This post raises the interesting question of why the French were more willing to associate with Africans and others from the colonies than the British...

Recall that as late as 2005, the fair city of Boston had laws on its books dating to back to 1675 that required the arrest of any Native American (aka Indian) to make it into the city.

Thomas Macaulay MP, a phenomenal writer, poet, historian, and civil servant, but hardly an ardent friend of the Church of Rome had the following to write, before his death in 1859:

It is remarkable that the two greatest and most salutary social revolutions which have taken place in England, that revolution which, in the thirteenth century, put an end to the tyranny of nation over nation, and that revolution which, a few generations later, put an end to the property of man in man, were silently and imperceptibly effected. They struck contemporary observers with no surprise, and have received from historians a very scanty measure of attention. They were brought about neither by legislative regulations nor by physical force.

Moral causes noiselessly effaced first the distinction between Norman and Saxon, and then the distinction between master and slave. None can venture to fix the precise moment at which either distinction ceased. Some faint traces of the old Norman feeling might perhaps have been found late in the fourteenth century. Some faint traces of the institution of villenage were detected by the curious so late as the days of the Stuarts; nor has that institution ever, to this hour, been abolished by statute.

It would be most unjust not to acknowledge that the chief agent in these two great deliverances was religion; and it may perhaps be doubted whether a purer religion might not have been found a less efficient agent. The benevolent spirit of the Christian morality is undoubtedly adverse to distinctions of caste. But to the Church of Rome such distinctions are peculiarly odious; for they are incompatible with other distinctions which are essential to her system. She ascribes to every priest a mysterious dignity which entitles him to the reverence of every layman; and she does not consider any man as disqualified, by reason of his nation or of his family, for the priesthood.

Her doctrines respecting the sacerdotal character, however erroneous they may be, have repeatedly mitigated some of the worst evils which can afflict society. That superstition cannot be regarded as unmixedly noxious which, in regions cursed by the tyranny of race over race, creates an aristocracy altogether independent of race, inverts the relation between the oppressor and the oppressed, and compels the hereditary master to kneel before the spiritual tribunal of the hereditary bondman. To this day, in some countries where negro slavery exists, Popery appears in advantageous contrast to other forms of Christianity. It is notorious that the antipathy between the European and African races is by no means so strong at Rio Janerio as at Washington.

In our own country this peculiarity of the Roman Catholic system produced, during the middle ages, many salutary effects. It is true that, shortly after the battle of Hastings, Saxon prelates and abbots were violently deposed, and that ecclesiastical adventurers from the Continent were intruded by hundreds into lucrative benefices. Yet even then pious divines of Norman blood raised their voices against such a violation of the constitution of the Church, refused to accept mitres from the hands of William, and charged him, on the peril of his soul, not to forget that the vanquished islanders were his fellow Christians.

The first protector whom the English found among the dominant caste was Archbishop Anselm. At a time when the English name was a reproach, and when all the civil and military dignities of the kingdom were supposed to belong exclusively to the countrymen of the Conqueror, the despised race learned, with transports of delight, that one of themselves, Nicholas Breakspear, had been elevated to the papal throne, and had held out his foot to be kissed by ambassadors sprung from the noblest houses of Normandy.

It was a national as well as a religious feeling that drew great multitudes to the shrine of Becket, whom they regarded as the enemy of their enemies. Whether he was a Norman or a Saxon may be doubted: but there is no doubt that he perished by Norman hands, and that the Saxons cherished his memory with peculiar tenderness and veneration, and, in their popular poetry, represented him as one of their own race. A successor of Becket was foremost among the refractory magnates who obtained that charter which secured the privileges both of the Norman barons and of the Saxon yeomanry.

How great a part the Roman Catholic ecclesiastics subsequently had in the abolition of villenage we learn from the unexceptionable testimony of Sir Thomas Smith, one of the ablest Protestant counsellors of Elizabeth. When the dying slaveholder asked for the last sacraments, his spiritual attendants regularly adjured him, as he loved his soul, to emancipate his brethren for whom Christ had died. So successfully had the Church used her formidable machinery that, before the Reformation came, she had enfranchised almost all the bondmen in the kingdom except her own, who, to do her justice, seem to have been very tenderly treated.

There can be no doubt that, when these two great revolutions had been effected, our forefathers were by far the best governed people in Europe.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks to you, sc, and Mr Macaulay, for this interesting background, which I doubt many people are aware of.