The Most Interesting Man in the World
Has Tom Brady written a symphony? Did Michael Jordan fight in a revolution? For Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, being a great athlete, composer, and warrior was just the tip of the iceberg.If Dos Equis had to pick a real-life mascot for their “Most Interesting Man in the World” ads, there would be only one worthy choice, in my opinion: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. We know him best as a composer who wrote music like this, the overture to his opera The Anonymous Lover:
In 18th-century France, though, he was Tom Brady, Andris Nelsons, Muhammad Ali, and General Patton all rolled into one. From being the greatest athlete in the country to being so famous as a musician that even Mozart couldn’t get a note in edgewise in Paris, Joseph Bologne had plenty of star power. Along the way, he also managed to lead Europe’s first all-black regiment and become one of the continent’s leading abolitionist voices. And he did it all while facing a society that all too often wanted to judge him for the color of his skin rather than his remarkable talent and character.
Bologne, the Athletic Star
Joseph Bologne was born in 1745 on the island of Guadeloupe, the son of a wealthy French settler and a young slave. Most children in the same situation were immediately disavowed by their fathers, if they were even acknowledged in the first place. According to the laws in place at the time, he would have been born a slave just like his mother, and potentially fated to a hard life toiling in the sugar plantations.
Joseph’s mother, though, made sure that Joseph was protected from that difficult life. His father provided for the two of them, and when Joseph was a young boy they moved to France. Despite harshly racist laws that forced black people to register with police and restricted their rights, his father was able to get him into an elite private school in Paris, where he studied alongside the sons of aristocracy.
One thing was apparent from an early age: Joseph Bologne was very, very special. As a teenager he made a name for himself as one of the best all-around athletes in the country. According to contemporary accounts, he could shoot individual buttons off of a coat, swim across the Seine with one hand tied behind his back, and beat just about anyone in the boxing ring. Running, ice skating, and horseback riding rounded out his remarkable list of athletic strengths.
One sport, though, stood above all else: fencing. Seen as the pastime of noblemen and warriors, fencing was a ticket to fame and acceptance in the most elite circles of French high society. As you might have guessed from his other talents, Bologne was the best fencer that anyone had ever seen. One of his friends and fellow fencers would later write that “no one ever in the art of fencing displayed more grace or more steadiness. He had superb style… As one sees him, Saint-Georges had arrived at an ideal perfection, which up to the present has not been attained by anyone [else].”
He gained even more fame after a match with fencing master Alexandre Picard, who had taunted him with racial slurs and derogatory comments. Spectators wondered whether a man from a supposedly inferior race could beat a French aristocrat in such a noble sport. As it turns out, he could, and he did!
Bologne, the Musical Genius
Joseph Bologne’s athletic exploits may have made him a star, but he was just getting started. While his musical education isn’t as well documented as his fencing, he apparently learned to play the violin as a young boy. By his early 20s, some of the leading composers in France were dedicating pieces to him. He was also known as a master of the harpsichord, and soon turned his attention to conducting and composing.
Bologne’s most popular compositions today are his violin concertos. Filled with wonderful melodies and devilishly difficult to play, they show a composer and performer at the height of his powers. He also wrote a number of hit operas, and was among the first French composers to write for string quartet. As a conductor, he commissioned six symphonies by Joseph Haydn, premiering them to audiences that included Queen Marie Antoinette.
Nowadays, Bologne is sometimes referred to as the “Black Mozart.” Meant to be a compliment, it’s really anything but. For one, Bologne was actually much more famous than Mozart when the two both lived in Paris. Bologne was the toast of the town, while Mozart was struggling to gain a foothold. What’s more, some passages in two pieces Mozart wrote in Paris, his Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat and his ballet Les Petits Riens, seem awfully similar to melodies that Bologne wrote. Maybe we should be calling Mozart the “Austrian Chevalier!”
Bologne, the Military Leader and Abolitionist
Bologne’s rise to fame wasn’t entirely smooth. He was a black man in 1700s French society, and racism followed him throughout his life. At one point, he was the favorite to become the conductor and musical director of the Paris Opera. Three prominent members objected, saying that “their honor and their delicate conscience could never allow them to submit to the orders of a mulatto.” He didn’t get the job.
Always remembering his roots, Bologne was a strenuous advocate for the abolition of slavery and the rights of black and mixed-race people throughout France and its colonies. When he was invited to London by the Prince of Wales (a huge fencing fan), he took the opportunity to meet with leading figures in the nascent English abolitionist movement. He took their pamphlets and other writings back to France, where they were translated and distributed. After slavery was abolished in France, he returned to the Americas to try to foster peace between newly-emancipated slaves and the ruling colonial class in what is now Haiti.
During the French Revolution, Bologne offered his services as a warrior to the new government. He formed a new regiment entirely composed of black men, the first of its kind in Europe. Again, though, racism reared its ugly head; the new regiment was denied proper training, funding, and equipment, and then ordered to a dangerous battlefront. Bologne refused, saying, “short of horses, equipment, and officers, I cannot lead my men to be slaughtered.” The regiment was disbanded, and Bologne was reassigned. Despite that and other problems, he served honorably, yet again making a name for himself.
With such an amazing life story, you’d think that Bologne would be a household name. Instead, he was largely forgotten after his death. His music has only recently found new admirers for its beauty and ingenuity. Still, he’s usually remembered under that backhanded compliment, “the Black Mozart,” eliding all of his other achievements.
It’s remarkable to be great in one area. To be great in pretty much everything you try is all but impossible. Just think of LeBron James writing a hit Broadway show, or Andris Nelsons hitting a grand slam over the Green Monster. It may seem crazy, but that would still be just a fraction of what Joseph Bologne was able to achieve. The fact that he did it while fighting pervasive racism is even more astounding. The next time you hear one of us on WCRB introduce a piece by “Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges,” remember that you’re listening to the work of one of the most interesting and incredible men in history.