Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, One of the First-Known Composers of African Descent

By Lisa Herndon, Manager, Schomburg Communications and Publications
June 1, 2023
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Illustration of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is the first-known classical music composer of African descent. He created operas, symphonies, sonatas, and more.

Joseph Bologne was a virtuoso violinist whose talents shined despite slavery laws and racism in Parisian society during the late 1700s. Named Chevalier de Saint Georges under the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Bologne is one of the first known classical music composers of African descent. He created operas, symphonies, sonatas, and more.

The recent release of the film Chevalier offers a glimpse into his life, introduces the artist to new generations, and helps to restore his legacy in history. Bologne (1745–1799) was born in the French Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe to an enslaved mother and white plantation owner father. Bologne was sent to school in France where he received the formal education of a wealthy nobleman. His excellence influenced fellow composers of his day such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and inspired authors including Alexandre Dumas. Chevalier de Saint-George was also a renowned fencer, abolitionist, supporter of the French Revolution, and colonel of the famous Légion Saint-Georges, an all-black military regiment. 

John Adams, a founding father and second president of the U.S., described him as “the most accomplished Man in Europe in Riding, Running, Shooting, Fencing, Dancing, Musick” in a 1779 diary entry.  

As the Schomburg Center honors Black Music Month, June is a wonderful time to schedule a research appointment to explore materials in person and view items online about Chevalier de Saint-Georges—a man history almost erased. The materials highlight the activism, bravery, genius, and magnificence of a multi-talented man who advanced the art form.

Arturo Schomburg’s Writings on Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Archival sheet of paper with typewriter written information
The Digital Collections includes a three-page essay written by the Center's founder Arturo Schomburg on Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The writing is believed to be part of a longer project Mr. Schomburg did not have a chance to complete.

The Center’s founder Arturo Schomburg wrote about Chevalier as part of a longer article titled “West Indian Composers and Musicians” in 1926. The story appeared in the Urban League’s Journal Opportunity IV. The text is part of the Arthur Alfonso Schomburg Papers in Box 12, folder 9, reel 10. The essay is on microfilm in the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division. The reel also contains 10 pages of typed and handwritten text by Mr. Schomburg, along with some editing notes about the composer. 

The Digital Collections of the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division (MARB) has the essay “Chevalier De Saint George.” The three-page typed text gives an overview of Bologne’s life, achievements, and challenges. The work is believed to be part of a larger project Mr. Schomburg did not have a chance to complete. 

Mr. Schomburg mentions the chapter “The Chevalier De Saint-George by Lionel de La Laurencie (translated into English by Frederick H. Martens) from the publication The Musical Quarterly as part of his research. It’s also in the Digital Collections. 

“Saint-George left numerous compositions for violin which make it possible for us to appreciate the adaptability and the varied nature of his talent as a composer, while at the same time they testify to his notable gifts as a violinist,” de La Laurencie wrote calling Saint-Georges “one of the most curious and engaging figures of the dying eighteenth century.”

Mr. Schomburg also mentions Roger de Beauvoir’s 1861 book Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, which is “filled with detail that is not altogether inaccurate.” MARB has a copy of the text, which is written in French. A digital copy of Beauvoir's work, similar to the one MARB holds, can be read on Hathi Trust.

Books About Bologne

MARB and the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference divisions both hold books about Bologne. English language texts include Joseph Boulogne called Chevalier de Saint-Georges by Emil F. Smidak.

For young readers, there are the books Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome plus Hugh Brewster's The Other Mozart: The Life of the Famous Chevalier de Saint-George

Books written in French include Le fleuret et l'archet: Le chevalier de Saint-George (1739?-1799), créole dans le siècle des Lumières : 19 janvier-30 mars 2001, bicentenaire de la mort du chevalier de Saint-George by Vincent Podevin-Bauduin and Laure Tressens. 

Experience the Music of Chevalier de Saint-Georges

In 2019, musicians from the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges, led by Marlon Daniel, and Guadeloupean Soprano Léïla Brédent performed on the Center’s stage as part of a U.S. preview concert of the Saint-George's International Music Festival. 

The festival honors the music, life, and legacy of one of Guadeloupe’s native sons.

Research assistance by Dr. Vanessa K. Valdés, author of Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, associate provost for Community Engagement at The City College of New York, and co-curator of Juan de Pareja, Afro-Hispanic Painter at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

More blog posts by Lisa Herndon:


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