The Music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George

Rotraut Freifrau Stromer von Reichenbach-Baumbauer

Joseph Bologne de Saint-George was the son of an aristocratic, white colonial ruler on the island of Guadeloupe and a 16 year old black slave from Senegal. Joseph was sent to the homeland France by his father to profit from a better and more profound education. Soon, he became known for his violin playing, his own compositions as well as one of the best fencers of Europe, proofing his skills in turnaments with illustrious people of his time like the Prince of Wales or the Chevalière d’Eon. He was named colonel to lead a troup of black soldiers in Guadeloupe during the French Revolution in order to help pacifying the islands. He was friends with some of the greatest composers of his time like Joseph Haydn and Chrsitoph Willibald Gluck and had conducted new works by Mozart, when the latter one lived in Paris. Although he socialized with the highest nobility, even with the king and queen of France themselves, his own aristocratic titles were not fully granted to him, due to his being a “mulatto.” His pieces for violin and piano have never been performed on a modern grand piano and have, for the first time, now being restored by German pianist Jens Barnieck ( and French violinist Romuald Grimbert-Barré ( in order to be performed in Germany, France (including overseas départements) and elsewhere in Europe as well as being recorded by the two musicians for the toccata classics label in London (UK). The musical scores will be available through a publishing house either in Germany or in the UK. Publication date is Autumn 2019. Lecture recitals, including an actor, who reads from the novel “Joseph, der schwarze Mozart” by Jan Jacobs Mulder were already programmed and are scheduled for future performances.

“My son, born on December 25th!” shouted Georges Bologne de Saint-Georges and everyone on the plantation could hear it: “We will call him Joseph.” There he laid, a little baby with brown skin, born in 1745 on the island of Guadeloupe to the white ruler of a sugar plantation and a black slave of 16 years. She was called “Nanon” and was known for her beauty. The aristocratic landloard Saint-Georges had payed a lot for her, since his crush on her became quite obvious to the slave traders. Some years later: “Why me?” asked Joseph when once again he wanted to play with his comrades, racing on a horse without saddle through the mild breezes of the Carribean island. Yet, it was time for his lessons in reading, writing, and the violin. No matter how far the island was from the absolutistic court of Versailles, Joseph should be feeling his French blood and heritage and the duty, education and manners that came along with it. The family Bologne came from Normandy, even within France far from the court, but the ramifications of social talks reached far. And father Saint-Georges had ambitious plans. Age 15 – time for Joseph to be finally accompanied to the motherland France, in order to meliorate his talents, his knowledge and his skills. Nanon came along and Georges de Bolognes legal wife Elisabeth. François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829), one of the finest and most sought-after violinists, composers and teachers in Paris was consulted and – he agreed to take on young Joseph as a student, making him learn the violin from scratch. “You need to work on harmony too” advised Gossec the young boy and encouraged him to put his musical ideas down on paper. Soon, not only string quartets became reality, but also an opera and violin concertos. The “Concerts des Amateurs” performed his pieces until the Chevalier became the director of this popular concert series himself, taking over the baton from one of his teachers, Pierre Gaviniès. Very soon, he would come into contact with acclaimed composers of his days like Christoph Willibald Gluck, Josph Haydn and – even Mozart himself. Of Mozart, he conducted some of the latest works when the young Austrian lived in Paris. Not only would Saint-George conduct the “concert des amateurs”, but he was asked to lead the “Concert Spirituel” as well, one of the most important concert series in France of that day. With that position, he had the power to commission symphonies by famous Austrian composer Joseph Haydn. When Mozart was in Paris, he not only took musical scores of Joseph Bologne de Saint-George, but they presumably also composed a piece together: “Les petits riens”, a ballet piece. Why Mozart, the great letter-writer never mentioned Saint-George stays a miracle up to today. Yet, there was another passion, that the young, sportive boy considered worth aspiring to: fencing. He wished to get his training from non other than the perfectionist Nicolas Texier de la Boëssière (1723-1807), who founded his own academy in Paris. La Boëssière invented the protection mask, which fencers would wear from that time on. Saint-George’s training was a personal matter for de la Boëssière, who would further the friendship of his own son with Joseph and even took them both for hunting on his private ground. In a few years’ span, Saint-George became known all over Europe for his fencing skills and challenged famous personalities of that day, like the Chevalière d’Eon or the Prince of Wales alike. Because of his aristocratic background and his polished manners, his knowledge and his looks, he was known in the upper social classes and had personal contact to the highest members of the court, even to the Queen Marie-Antoinette herself. Only, due to his dark skin and his mother being a former slave, the most of an aristocratic title he could hold, was the rank of a Chevalier, being forced also to leave out the “s” in his family name Saint-Georges. With all the bitter experiences resulting from rassist comments and behavior of the noble and not so noble society, with the repudiation just because of the color of his skin, he was admired by women. And he did not resist the pleasures that could result from his good looks, his excellent behaviour and his talents to entertain and amuse. Most of his scores can be found in the estate of the countess Vauban. The descendants of the countess up to today reluctantly admit the story of the married woman, who enjoyed a life with music and the arts and whose husband often was gone on military duty. Joseph got falsely denigrated and sent to jail for being accused of having stolen governmental money in order to pay his personal debts. Sixteen month for nothing until friends finally won acquittal. According to baron Dieudonné Thiébault, “Saint-George was a veritable king of the arms, and the first man in the world who possessed flexibility, power and sensitivity. He danced with perfection, masterfully climbed up and rode a horse and did first class ice skating. He even played the violin artistically and composed concertos that the [concerts des] amateurs have performed already for a long time” He, who had experienced disdain, disrespect, and violence faught once again for the objectives and the values of the French revolution, signging letters just by “citoyen George”, trying to use his influence for engaging as abolitionist and participating in demonstrations. Due to his commitment, he was named “colonel” for the “Légion franche des Américains du Midi.” The name “Américains” was used for the inhabitants of the Antilles and not for those of the recently founded United States. Colonel de Saint-George travelled with an army of 400 soldiers and a cavalry brigade of 150 people to Guadeloupe to pacify the region after the abolition of slavery and got back, honored and deeply respected by the soldiers. Captain Choppin wrote in his study about the French cavalry corps (in: Le Spectateur militaire, 1891): "Saint-George has conducted his troups with momentum and always shows enthusiasm and virtue in front of the enemy.” In 1799 Joseph Bologne de Saint-George died in Paris in poverty. His aristocratic “friends”, who came back to Paris after the turmoil of the revolution, never pardoned his confessing to the upheaval. His last money went to rent an apartment near the fence arena of his first teacher de la Boëssière and the Palais Royal. He died, only accompanied by his friend, the captain of his cavalry, Nicolas Duhamel. Three years after his death, Napoleon Bonaparte re-installed slavery on the islands, the second death of Saint-George. Up until now, France does not participate in the “Black History Month” as slavery was not part of the mainland France. The music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George rests widely unknown until today aside from some violin concertos. The Saint-George Association in Paris raises more and more awareness of the music. Myths and rumors dominate the little assured facts of Saint-George’s life. In Germany, some attention to this contemporary of Mozart was raised by a translation of a Dutch novel “Joseph, der schwarze Mozart” by Jan Jacobs Mulder, that appeared in September of 2018. German pianist Jens Barnieck and French violinist Romuald Grimbert-Barré undertook a tour through the archive to dig out unknown material in order to resuscitate a repertoire, that hat been waiting to entertain the listener’s ear for the past 200 years. Most of the scores are either in poor condition or studded with misprints and mistakes, that have to be thought about and historically reconstructed in order to be performed. The music is light and enjoyable and depicts a wonderful addition to the classical repertoire for students and musicians alike, sometimes festive, sometimes pensive. Jens Barnieck and Romuald Grimbert-Barré will not only perform the restored music in concerts in Germany (Mozart-Fest Offenbach and more first performances of pieces for violin and piano in the historic castle of Grünsberg), France (Paris, Guadeloupe) and Austria. The concerts will sometimes include reading portions from the novel “Joseph, der schwarze Mozart”. Both musicians will also record the music on the toccata label (London, UK). The restored scores, saved by a computer program, will be published either in Germany or in the UK in order for a broader audience to have access to the music of Saint-George, who despite of his aristocratic father, was considered minority and “mulatto.”

European Dimension

European Dimension The project with the music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George will - depict a (re)discovery of music after 200 years of a shadow existence - perpetuate the memory of (French) slavery - add to the violin repertoire for students, amateurs and musicians - be the first recording for violin and a modern grand piano - will be performed by a duo of a French violinist and a German pianist - will be performed and recorded in Germany, France (and Guadeloupe), and other countries - be published in the UK (label toccata classics, release determined for October, 2019) - include more lecture recitals in the future with actors, reading from the German book “Joseph, der schwarze Mozart” by Jan Jacobs Mulder in order to promote the music and the story of this unique composer - invite other performers and listeners to discover a fine composer and a part of European history - inspire to build bridges between France and Germany, people of other nations, no matter of their skin color