Thursday, January 10, 2008

Le Mozart Noir

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. Share

6 comments:

Glenna said...

Oh this would make a great movie, I think!

elena maria vidal said...

Wouldn't it, though? I think there is already an opera.

William J. Zick said...

A DVD called "Le Mozart Noir", based on a 2003 CBC TV documentary, was released in 2005 and is available in North America. I am webmaster of AfriClassical.com, which devotes six pages and 12 audio samples to Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. I contributed my research to the producer, so my name is in the credits. I am very pleased you are calling attention to this very worthy figure. Unfortunately, the nomination of Saint-Georges as Director of the Paris Opera was withdrawn by the King after it was sabotaged by three women who sang and danced in the company. They petitioned the Queen, saying the delicacy of their consciences would not permit them to take orders from "a mulatto". My website quotes biographer Gabriel Banat, who discovered that the courtier who was appointed in lieu of Saint-Georges was the lover of one of the three petitioners. This was the composer's most public racial humiliation. Dozens of fine CDs are available along with the DVD, so I hope you and your readers will explore them and help spread the word about the beautiful music of this composer.

elena maria vidal said...

Dear Mr. Zick,

Thank you very much for visiting and sharing this additional information about Le Chevalier. I will visit your website with great interest! Thank you!

Leah Marie Brown said...

Last March I posted a bit about the Chevalier on my blog, contending that he had to have been one of the most dashing and romantic figures to have lived. I agree with you, a movie of his life would be fantastic. Have you read the biography by Gabriel Banat? It is good, despite the typos.

Another great post.

William J. Zick said...

Yes, I have read "The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow" (2006) by Gabriel Banat. It is the most authoritative biography of Saint-Georges in English, and is a principal source for the AfriClassical.com pages on the composer.