One of the earliest known Black composers, Joseph Boulogne was in a league of his own in the late 18th century. Born in 1745 in the French Caribbean, Boulogne was the illegitimate son of Georges Boulogne, a French plantation owner, and a slave named Anne. Around the age of ten, he and his mother traveled with his father back to France, where Joseph was enrolled in elite schools and received lessons in music and fencing. As the Code Noir laws excluded mixed-race children from inheriting titles, Georges ensured his son received the best opportunities. Instructors at Tessierde La Boëssière’s renowned fencing school were amazed by the rapid speed he learned fencing. Picked on by fencer Alexandre Picard, who referred Boulogne as “Boëssière’s mulatto,” Joseph defeated Picard in a public match that equally pitted proponents and opponents of slavery, both sides placing major bets on the game. After graduation in 1766, Joseph was made a chevalier or knight, using his father’s suffix. He was known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges – a prominent figure among Parisian society’s salons, counting among his friends Louis-Philippe, Duke of Chartres, whose family would be influential in his career.
Not much is known about Boulogne’s musical training before he arrived in France. The first link with music was in the mid-1760s when Francois-Joseph Gossec dedicated six string trios to Saint-Georges. When Gossec established Le Concert des Amateurs in 1769, Joseph was added to the roster as a violinist and, later, concertmaster. He began composing shortly after. His first compositions, Op. 1, included six string quartets, the first in that genre written in France. He also composed three sonatas for keyboard and violin, Op. 1a, pitting the two instruments on equal footing. A far cry from Baroque standards, Saint-Georges was writing in a style that was still in its early development. He made his public debut as a composer with his two violin concertos (Op. 2) in 1772, performing as a soloist to great success. He spent the next seven years writing twelve additional violin concertos, two symphonies, six opéras comiques, and eight symphonie-concertantes.
In 1773, Gossec passed his directorship of the Concert des Amateurs to Saint-Georges. Despite becoming one of “the best orchestra for symphonies in Paris,” Boulogne had to disband the orchestra in 1781 as patrons diverted their funding for the American cause. He turned to his friend Louis-Philippe for support. As a Grand Master of the Freemasons, the Duke revived the orchestra as part of an exclusive Lodge. Renamed Le Concert Olympique, they performed in the grand salon of the Palais Royal. Saint-Georges was tasked with commissioning Franz Joseph Haydn to compose six new symphonies for the orchestra. Performed at the Tuileries Palace, Haydn’s Paris Symphonies were well-received by Parisians. News of the orchestra and its renowned director even reached Versailles, which prompted none other than Queen Marie-Antoinette herself to attend concerts.
Future U.S. President John Adams described Saint-Georges as “the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, shooting, fencing, dancing, and music.” But he was not immune to the time’s sociopolitical views. The prolific composer withdrew his application as director of the Académie Royale de Musique in 1776 after several performers wrote to the Queen of their disgust “accepting orders from a mulatto.” Laws against interracial marriages prevented him from making a good match among France’s aristocratic families. (Though his fencing tutor, La Boëssière, wrote that “he loved and was loved.”) Destroying any hopes as France’s premiere conductor, Saint-Georges nevertheless continued to write compositions.
In 1778, the Marquise de Montesson, morganatic wife of Louis-Philippe’s father, the Duke of Orleans, appointed Joseph Boulogne as music director of her private theatre. The position came with a fashionable apartment in a Parisian ducal mansion, which would have another esteemed composer under its roof – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. After his mother died in Paris, Mozart moved into the apartments of Melchior Grimm, the Duke’s secretary. It is very possible Mozart and Boulogne became acquainted with one another during those six months. In his 1990 article in the Black Music Research Journal, Gabriel Banat discovered striking similarities between Saint-Georges’ violin concerto (Op. 7, No. 1) and Mozart’s Symphonie Concertante in E-flat (K. 364) written shortly after Mozart returned to Austria in 1779.
On March 8, 1780, Saint-Georges premiered L’Amant Anonyme (The Anonymous Lover) at Montesson’s theatre. Based on a play by Madame Genlis, L’Amant Anonyme is a story of a lover afraid to reveal his true identity to the object of his affections. Perhaps a reflection of his own romantic life, Anonyme remains one of his greatest known works. Montesson’s theatre closed in 1785 upon the Duke of Orleans’s death, forcing Joseph to lose his prominent position. Although the Duke was succeeded by his son, Louis-Philippe became heavily involved in a political faction that opposed France’s absolute monarchy.
Saint-Georges, too, became part of a growing anti-slavery movement in France. Under the guise of fencing, he traveled to London at the Prince of Wales’ invitation, who held exhibition matches in 1787. Among Boulogne’s competitors were the Prince himself and famous French transgender fencer & spy, La Chevalière d’Eon. Saint-Georges also performed at the Anacreontic Society, a gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians, and met with fellow parliamentary abolitionists like William Wilberforce and John Wilkes.
When the Chevalier de Saint-Georges returned, France was on the verge of a revolution. He was on tour in the North of France when he chose to attend the Estates General’s opening on May 5, 1789. Two months later, Bastille fell and lit the torch of the French Revolution. Saint-Georges became an enlisted officer and appointed as colonel of his own legion (Légion St. Georges), made up of freedmen of color. Among them was Thomas Alexandre Dumas, father of the famed novelist. He would make history as one of the first Black men to lead a European army.
Saint-Georges died on June 12, 1799, aged 53, of bladder disease. Although he did not die penniless, he was undoubtedly not the prominent figure he was at the height of his career. And despite the racial prejudices of the successive centuries, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ music continues to be shared by audiences and listeners around the world two centuries on.
Watch your RPO perform Saint-Georges’ Overture to L’Amant Anonyme in From Saint-Georges to Schreker! View anytime, anywhere, at your convenience. Streaming March 30. Click here to order online, or call our Patron Services Center at (585) 454-2100.