Joseph Bologne was born December 25, 1745, on the island of Guadeloupe in the West Indies. His father was a minor French noble; his mother was the African slave of his father’s wife.
His father adored the baby boy, and couldn’t help noticing his quick intellect. He wanted nothing more than for Joseph to grow up and take his place among the nobility. He even gave him a special title: le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. His early education included learning to read and write in French, riding, shooting, and playing the violin.
When Joseph was eight, his father moved him and his mother to Paris. Joseph was enrolled in an exclusive academy. He became an accomplished swordsman, virtually unbeatable at fencing. He was also an elegant dancer and very popular with the ladies.
But his greatest talent was his musicianship. He was a virtuoso violinist. The young queen, Marie Antoinette, herself a fine musician, invited him to come to Versailles and play with her. Joseph was also an acclaimed composer and a sought-after conductor. He aspired to be the director of the Paris Opera. But the three divas of the opera company complained to King Louis XVI that it was beneath them to take orders from a mulatto. The king left the position unfilled.
Eventually, Joseph became aware of the longing of the French people for a more egalitarian form of government. He sympathized with the cause of the Revolution, and became the commander of a regiment of a thousand black soldiers. After the overthrow of the monarchy and the beheading of Louis XVI, the Reign of Terror began, and the nobles’ lives were at risk—including the Chevalier’s. Joseph was imprisoned. Ultimately, he kept his head and was released.
Today Joseph Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is known for the beautiful music he composed. Sadly, after his lifetime, his music fell out of favor and was not performed for almost 200 years; but in recent decades, it has been rediscovered and new audiences appreciate his genius. He is thought to be the first Black classical composer. His style is often compared to Mozart’s.