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Art & Culture

Chevalier: Shining a Light on Joseph Bologne, the Remarkable Black Genius of 18th Century France

  • Craig Miller
  • |
  • June 12, 2023
  • |
  • 3 minute read
  • |
Chevalier: Shining a Light on Joseph Bologne, the Remarkable Black Genius of 18th Century France
Key Takeaways
  • "Chevalier" is a new film that tells the story of Joseph Bologne, a Black virtuoso violinist, composer, and fencer in 18th century France, and aims to challenge the belief that classical music was solely the domain of white Europeans.
  • Bologne was an exceptional talent and accomplished musician who faced racial discrimination due to his mixed-race heritage, which hindered his career as the first person of color to lead the Paris Opéra.
  • "Chevalier" serves as an important reminder of the significant contributions of Black musicians to classical music and encourages a more inclusive understanding of the history of classical music, inspiring future generations of musicians and composers, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

 

The remarkable story of Joseph Bologne, a Black virtuoso violinist, composer, and fencer in 18th century France, is brought to life in the new film “Chevalier.”

Directed by Stephen Williams and written by Stefani Robinson, the film aims to challenge the long-standing belief that classical music was solely the domain of white Europeans, highlighting the incredible contributions of Black musicians such as Bologne.

The Musical Prodigy: Joseph Bologne

Born in 1745 on the island of Guadeloupe, Joseph Bologne was the son of Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, a wealthy French plantation owner, and Nanon, an enslaved 16-year-old from Senegal.

Bologne moved to France as a child, where he studied music, mathematics, literature, and fencing at the prestigious La Boëssière Academy.

His exceptional talents were recognized early on, earning him the admiration of his peers and notable figures, including John Adams, who declared Bologne “the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, shooting, fencing, dancing and music.”

Kelvin Harrison Jr. portrays Bologne in the film and underwent rigorous training, practicing the violin for seven hours a day to prepare for the role.

While the film takes some artistic liberties with Bologne’s life story, it draws attention to his extraordinary achievements and the racial barriers he faced in his pursuit of success.

A Pioneer in the Classical Music World

Joseph Bologne held a myriad of musical roles, including orchestral performer, soloist, and ensemble leader.

He received commissions to compose operas for Parisian venues and often played at high-society musical gatherings.

Bologne’s published works contributed to the thriving French print market, and his groundbreaking string quartets helped define the baroque era’s balance and melody.

His music was well-respected and possibly even influenced fellow composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Directed by Stephen Williams and written by Stefani Robinson, the film aims to challenge the long-standing belief that classical music was solely the domain of white Europeans, highlighting the incredible contributions of Black musicians such as Bologne.

Overcoming Obstacles and Confronting Discrimination

Despite his remarkable achievements, Bologne couldn’t escape racial prejudice. As a biracial individual, France’s Code Noir prevented him from inheriting his father’s title, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

However, King Louis XV granted him the title as an officer of the King’s Guard.

His race also impeded his career when he was about to make history as the first person of color to head the Paris Opéra, France’s most distinguished cultural institution of the time.

A group of prominent singers petitioned Queen Marie Antoinette to block his appointment, refusing to serve under a mixed-race musician.

From Melodies to Revolution

After being rejected by the Paris Opéra, Bologne shifted his attention to societal transformation. As an abolitionist and French Revolution soldier, he commanded France’s inaugural all-Black regiment, comprising 1,000 men.

Although details of Bologne’s personal life remain largely unknown, he was thought to have had a close relationship with Marie-Josephine de Comarieu, the Marquise de Montalembert’s wife – a narrative explored in the film.

The Lasting Impact and Significance of “Chevalier”

Joseph Bologne passed away in 1799, with many of his compositions destroyed when Napoleon Bonaparte reinstated slavery in France.

Nevertheless, his music, incorporating elements of traditional Guadeloupean songs, has seen a resurgence in recent years, as orchestras and opera houses worldwide perform his works.

“Chevalier” highlights the crucial role Black musicians have played in classical music and emphasizes the need to broaden and diversify historical perspectives.

The film not only honors Bologne’s extraordinary life and accomplishments but also promotes a more inclusive understanding of classical music history.

“Chevalier” has the potential to motivate future generations of musicians and composers, irrespective of their racial or ethnic backgrounds, to overcome challenges and leave an enduring impact on the global stage.

Craig Miller

Craig Miller

Read Full Biography

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