‘Virtuoso’ is the Language of Great Musicians; ‘Black’ is not His Name: Part I
by Kristen Adams
Some of the greatest musicians saw a virtuoso for their talent, not their race (after its invention). The innate nature of music and true artistry is to break the boundary between what the viewer knows and how this knowledge, belief, emotion, or controversy is perceived. The classical world has had individuals stretching musical, political, and physical boundaries for centuries, and listeners are excited to enjoy each new creation. In recognizing the virtuoso/a as a musician with tremendous skill, rather than aligning it with its root, virtu’, that was used to describe masculine noble men, the community opened the language to be inclusive so that the classical realm could be too. When language accepts, so does society, no matter how minute or expansive. It is up to us, who remember, to keep the language we speak as open as the music our souls and instruments create. Therefore, we’d like to consider a musician whose life and musical achievements resemble the Black boy joy we recognize today: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 - 1799). During his life, he mastered his crafts and broke societal boundaries in different ways, yet he still became remembered in the shadow of a white classical composer. Today, we change that, and we continue the legacy of the Black Lives Matter Movement that cries “Say his name”.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is known as the “Black Mozart”, but if history measured his skill and impact, Mozart would have been known as the “White Bologne”. Sounds off, right? Better to remember Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Mozart. We can delve deeper to help the name stick, if needed. “Black Mozart” was used to refer to Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges because Mozart was so inspired by Bologne’s talent and artistry that he was always competing against him and driving himself to be better than Bologne. Some would argue that Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, reflected his sentiments towards Paris, and the character Monostatos was his depiction of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, whom he considered his nemesis. However, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is not remembered to have addressed this competition, and instead was living his best life being the local celebrity that he was. Bologne was not known solely in his nation, but was regarded around the world by major figures of his time for his virtuoso in composition and performance. Years later, with a different tune, we cry, “Say his name”.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a violinist, harpist, composer, colonel, and champion fencer who was also invited to many balls because of his dancing skills. Born from a Guadalupe plantation owner and an enslaved African, he was considered an illegitimate child, but that did not stop him from mastering his many crafts and breaking the stereotypes to be remembered in such high esteem. When Joseph Bologne, also known as “god of arms”, graduated from the Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation (fencing and horsemanship academy), he was made an officer of the king’s bodyguard, becoming Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. It is possible that you recognize his name if you were lucky to learn about the French Revolution through an unracialized, and thus authentic, lens. He not only volunteered to fight, but he also became colonel of the first Black regiment in Europe, a cavalry brigade of 1,000 volunteers of color, with whom he halted ‘The Treason of Dumouriez’. Even while he was volunteering, he gave weekly concerts; his passion for music transcended all boundaries and concepts of what a military experience should be and what his life could be.
He continued to create, and began writing operas, directing Marquise de Montesson’s prestigious musical theater, in addition to conducting Le Concert des Amateurs, which he transformed into one of the best orchestras in Europe during his lifetime. Amidst the high regards with which society viewed him, one that stands out is John Adams’s declaration that Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was “the most accomplished man in Europe”. There are many rich and exciting aspects of his character and achievements. We invite you to explore his music, read more about his life, speak his name, and remember Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Enjoy listening to his music this week! Stay tuned for part 2 next week. Here is a piece to start your exploration!
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