Why Has History Forgotten Joseph Bologne, the Brilliant 18th-Century Composer Showcased in ‘Chevalier’?
A new film dramatizes the story of a Black immigrant to France whose musical talents have long been overlooked
Among the famed 18th-century composers, one name is often missing: Joseph Bologne, also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a classical musician whose talents rivaled Mozart’s.
The film Chevalier, which comes out today, dramatizes Bologne’s rise and spotlights the erasure of Black classical artists of 18th- and 19th-century Europe.
“There’s a way in which white people, historically, have constantly denied Black people any kind of association with genius,” historian and musicologist Kira Thurman told Nora McGreevy of Smithsonian magazine in 2020.
Born in 1745 in the French Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe, Bologne was the son of a wealthy plantation owner and an enslaved 16-year-old girl from Senegal. After moving to Paris, where his mother became a free woman, he studied music, mathematics, literature and fencing at La Boëssière Academy.
Part of what made Bologne a singular figure in Paris at the time was his wide range of skills. “Unlike other more famous composers of this period, it’s very clear that music was just one facet of Bologne’s personal and professional identity,” Julia Doe, a musicologist at Columbia University, tells the Guardian’s David Smith.
In a biographical notice written soon after his death, a friend praised “his upstanding character and his accomplishments as a swordsman, a dancer, a swimmer, an ice skater and so on,” adds Doe. “It’s truly extraordinary.”
President John Adams once said that Bologne was “the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, shooting, fencing, dancing and music.”
While he achieved success in France—writing operas and gaining patronage from members of Parisian society—his career was not immune to racism. When he was up for a job at the Paris Opera, a trio of divas declared they would never “submit to orders of a mulatto.”
Bologne went on to fight in the French Revolution, leading France’s first all-Black regiment. He died of an ulcerated bladder in 1799.
The new film, which stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Bologne, has received generally positive reviews. Still, its focus on the steamy rumors of romance between Bologne and Parisian aristocratic women, which Doe says circulated during the composer’s life, have frustrated some.
The New York Times’ Lisa Kennedy laments that the film had “a missed opportunity” to dig more fully into Bologne’s genius and tell a story too often passed over.
In recent years, the music world has been turning back to his work. A few years ago, for instance, the Los Angeles Opera performed his chamber opera The Anonymous Lover.
Marcos Balter, a Black composer at Columbia University, tells the Guardian that he hopes Bologne will gain more widespread recognition after years as a “curiosity.” In 2020, Balter wrote an op-ed in the Times titled, “His Name Is Joseph Bologne, Not ‘Black Mozart.’”
“Saying that Bologne is a great figure does not mean that Mozart wasn’t. It only means that we should not talk about this artist as the shadow of this other one,” he tells the Guardian. “It’s not an either/or. It’s an and.”