A virtuoso violinist and composer. A champion fencer and rider. A friend to Mozart and a teacher to Marie Antoinette. An abolitionist. A Black son of a slaveholder.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was all of these things and more. And despite being known for his prowess as a musician during the 18th Century in France, Bologne’s accomplishments and life have gone largely unrecognized until recently.
“His story needs to be told and perhaps his time is now,” says Timothy Redmond, the music director of the Winston-Salem Symphony in “The Chevalier: A Voice to be Heard,” a 15-minute film about a new project that aims to highlight Bologne’s life through art and storytelling. The short film, released on the symphony’s website last month, acts as a preview of a larger, collaborative project between the symphony, the NC Black Repertory Company and Authoring Action that will premiere at the NC Black Theatre Festival this summer. The final work, which is in production now, comes in the form of a play accompanied by live music called The Chevalier, written by Bill Barclay.
Bologne was born in the French colony of Guadeloupe in 1745 to a white slave owner, George Bologne de Saint-George, and his enslaved mistress Nanon. Despite the circumstances of his birth, Bologne’s father ensured that his son received a world-class education in Paris, where he befriended Mozart and eventually began teaching weekly music lessons to Marie Antoinette. In addition, he composed several classical works, became a virtuoso violinist and was a candidate for music director of the Paris Opera, but lost the chance after performers protested, claiming they wouldn’t work under a Black director.
“If you look at the play and look at Chevalier’s life, what you have is a storm that is never settled,” Nathan Ross Freeman, the co-founder and artistic director of Authoring Action, says in the film. “A creature that celebrates the conditions under which he was able to proliferate but at the same token, where he was hidden.”
Redmond, music director for the Winston-Salem Symphony, says telling Bologne’s story is more important than ever given the renewed racial justice movement from 2020.
“There was a lot of looking in the mirror in the classical music world,” Redmond says. “Questions like, Do we represent the world in which we live? And it was, No. and then, Well, why is that?”
Redmond says the project began after his friend Bill Barclay approached him about a play that he had written chronicling Bologne’s life. Performers with the project did a community reading of the work last year and after receiving feedback, Barclay is still revising the play to be finalized for the National Black Theatre Festival this summer. The symphony also partnered with Authoring Action, a local youth-centered arts organization that encourages creative writing as a way to develop life skills.
“We teach our students that the pen is mightier than the sword, and we challenge them to meditate on the question: What if you could change the world with just one word?” says Love’ Lemon, the program and outreach coordinator of Authoring Action. “And I believe that Chevalier’s life answers that question and teaches us those mantras.”
Jackie Alexander, artistic director of the NC Black Repertory Company and National Black Theatre Festival, says that Bologne’s story should have been told a long time ago.
“Hopefully this project will make the world recognize him today,” Alexander says. “I feel like he has been forgotten…. His life was an accomplishment that anybody could look at and appreciate. What an amazing person, artist, will of spirit he must have possessed to accomplish what he accomplished.”
During the French Revolution, Bologne led an all-Black military regiment which resulted in him being hailed as a hero for a short time. However, his ties to the aristocracy made him vulnerable and led to his imprisonment, according to multiple sources. After being released a year later, Bologne attempted to re-establish an orchestra and died in 1799.
These days, the Chevalier is known as one of the first classical composers of African ancestry and is often referred to as the “Black Mozart.” But Bologne is an individual to be celebrated on his own, Redmond says. And imperative to telling his story is a critical look at how the classical world can be more equitable for artists like Chevalier now.
“This is a person to be celebrated,” he says. “We should be asking ourselves, What could we be doing? What should we be doing today to ensure that racial equity in classical music isn’t something that needs to be discussed in 100 years time?”
According to Redmond, other companies like the Los Angeles Opera have also taken notice of Chevalier recently and performed his works.
“His music just has this feeling of something of real quality,” Redmond says. “Like when you put on a really well-made jacket or you taste a really amazing wine. You think, This is really quality and this is engaging.”
Alexander hopes that those who see the final work this summer, whether it’s in person or online, will be compelled to learn more about Bologne and others like him. He hopes to use a hybrid model for the festival this year with plans to premiere TheChevalier live on-stage with an audience.
“When I first learned about him, I started Googling this guy,” Alexander says. “I ordered a book and from that I learned more about other artists. No one lives in a vacuum. So, it’s a great feeling when you know an audience is going to leave a piece and their lives will be enriched and they’ll know more about the world.”
Learn more about the Chevalier project and watch the film at wssymphony.org/chevalier.