On "The Black Mozart"

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on August 14, 2010


I suppose it is now necessary for me to try to find the music of Joseph Bologne, le Chevalier de Saint-Georges on iTunes. Or somewhere; anyone who is compared to Mozart and Haydn by people well-placed to make the comparison, deserves my respect.

Saint-Georges seemed to have been quite the Renaissance man, though it did him little good, alas:

Despite his renown, Saint-Georges was still vulnerable to racial prejudice. Perhaps the most flagrant and dispiriting instance occurred in 1776 when he was nominated to head the prestigious Paris Opéra, only to have his candidacy challenged by a group of divas who argued that they could not be expected to, as they put it, “submit to the orders of a mulatto.” Louis XVI had approved the appointment, says Pettaway, but the divas’ objections won out and Saint-Georges did not get the coveted directorship.

When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, Saint-Georges added yet another page to his curriculum vitae. Naturally, the democratic ideals of the revolution—liberté, égalité, fraternité—appealed to the composer, who under the Ancien Régime “never knew when the ugly face of racism would present itself again,” says Pettaway. He joined the National Guard at Lille at 1789, and a year later was selected to lead one thousand black soldiers charged with defending the ongoing revolution.

But service to the revolution, it turned out, was no guarantee against the sweeping violence of la Terreur. The revolutionaries regarded anyone with ties to the aristocracy with suspicion, and Saint-Georges, who had been a guard for Louis XV and conducted Haydn’s Paris Symphonies before Marie Antoinette, was no exception. Brought in on trumped-up charges in 1793, he spent nearly a year in prison. Five years later, at about the age of fifty-five, he died in Paris, destitute, alone, and all but forgotten.

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