Meet Joseph Boulogne, the black classical composer who taught Marie Antoinette how to play the violin

Stephen Nartey May 05, 2023
Joseph Boulogne/Photo credit: Picryl

Growing up, the father of Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, wanted him to be a French aristocrat. Being a son of a wealthy plantation owner, Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, and a female slave, Nanon, his father knew that French society would not readily embrace him. Since he was brought to France at an early age, the dream of his father was to position him in a cultural society that would enable him to be free and be whoever he wanted to be.

Seeking to gain acceptance for his son among the best of society, Saint-Georges’ father enrolled him in a prestigious fencing school, Académie royale polytechnique des Armes et de l’équitation, when he was only 13. Saint-George did not disappoint, he demonstrated exceptional ability in the art of fencing and horsemanship. However, what later defined him was his ability to play the violin in an extraordinary way that left the white majority with no option but to accept his talent and skin color altogether.

His father sought the services of one of the great composers in Paris to teach him how to play the violin. It seemed like a calling for the young Saint-George as he devoted everything within him to master the skill of playing the instrument. The right-hand technique he was supposed to use in the fencing art, became his strength in the playing of the violin.

His teachers took a liking to him and selected him to play the violin first in front of an annual orchestra that invited the best musicians across France. The expectation was that such an experience would naturally make Saint-George become timid and uncomfortable in front of such an audience, however, he always dazzled the audience. His performances were acclaimed as virtuosic, according to Sonicscoop.

The racial barriers in French society compelled Saint George to work extra harder to be in the spotlight. The racist policies then denied him from inheriting his father’s properties or titles. He however needed something that would differentiate him from his contemporaries, and decided to include composition in his skill of playing the violin.

This gave birth to a new style of music that even modern masters of violin find complicated to play and master at the same time. By the end of his career, he was one of the main composers with several operas, 15 violin concertos, symphonies, and a number of chamber works credited to his name. He is also reputed as one of the rare French exponents of early classical violin composition.

Interestingly, when the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, needed a violin teacher, it was Saint-George she fell on to teach her. He also excelled in the military, when he graduated school in 1766, he was assigned as an officer of the king’s bodyguard and chevaliers, a member of orders of knighthood.

He became known as Chevalier de Saint-George from then on, according to Europeana. He passed away on June 10, 1799, from a bladder disease. He will be remembered for his musical compositions and for breaking ground as a mixed-race classical composer and a military leader.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: May 5, 2023


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