Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de St Georges c 1745 – 1799

Joseph Boulogne was born of Christmas day, 1745. His father was George de Boulogne de Saint-Georges, a French plantation owner on the French West Indies island of Guadeloupe, his mother, a young woman, Nanon, of African descent who worked as a slave. He heard the violin played by an old man who once performed in cafes in Paris and now gave Joseph lessons.
The family moved to France at the time Louis XV was King. Since Joseph’s father had the title “Chevalier” (= “Sir”) he was able to give his son an education at one of the best schools in Paris where he learned mathematics, history, foreign languages, music, drawing and dance. Joseph excelled good in many things but in fencing and in music he became famous for his skills.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited Paris at this time he must have heard Joseph’s music because he used a section of one of his works in his Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola. It was Joseph who had invented this form of music designed to show off more than one instrument.
A newspaper report says that 
”During the 1772-1773 concert season, Joseph directed and played his first two violin concertos at the Amateurs. Le Mercure [The Mercury] reported that they ‘received the greatest applause as much for the quality of playing as for that of the composition’.”

He played for Marie Antoinette at the Palace of Versailles and was favourite to become head of the paris opera. He was stopped by prevailing racist attitudes. Joseph was involved on the commissioning of six symphonies by Josef Haydn. Among these “Paris” Symphonies one is called “La Reine” (The Queen) in honour of Marie Antoinette. Joseph conducted their first performances.
The monarchy was unpopular and a reform movement was gaining strength. Joseph became interested in politics after meeting a new friend who believed in equality and the abolition of slavery. Joseph went to London to where the movement was more advanced and met other campaigners. Back in France he was made a military leader and formed a regiment of 1000 black soldiers. Other European countries who supported the King tried to invade France. Joseph’s regiment fought against them with considerable success.
Instead of being thanked, Joseph was thrown into prison. Reform had turned into revolution beginning a “reign of terror”. The leader, Robespierre, had those connected with the King and Queen executed using the guillotine. King Louis XV and Queen Marie Antoinette were among them. Joseph was thrown into prison.
Luckily for Joseph Robespierre was himself overthrown and he was eventually released living the rest of his life as an commoner. The new government wanted to know what was happening in the French colonies so Joseph was asked to go back to the Caribbean. There he met Toussaint L’ Ouverture who led a revolt to free Haiti from colonial rule.
Joseph’s music was no longer in fashion because of its associations with the former aristocracy. It took 200 years for it to be heard again.
Vital Link Educational

Teaching Notes
Joseph Boulogne was a celebrity in France during C18th
Link to more familiar people & events of the period.
Major player in Paris during a turbulent period in European history
Athletic ability allowed him into aristocratic circles
Musical ability with violin and composition brought him to the Royal Court
He influenced Mozart with the Sinfonia Concertante form he had invented
He commissioned Haydn’s Paris Symphonies (Nos 82-87) & conducted their first performance
Racism excluded him from post of Director of Paris Opera & marriage
He became a campaigner for abolition of slavery & against racism
He became commander of 1000 black troops who fought for the new France
He escaped execution & became an ambassador for France in Haiti.
He met with Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian revolution
Mozart Noire CD
The Other Mozart. Hardback key stage 2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.