Magazine article Humanities

Black Mozart

Magazine article Humanities

Black Mozart

Article excerpt

PENNSYLVANIA "HE WAS A SUPERSTAR," says Lincoln University music professor Charles Pettaway, summing up the career of perhaps the most unjustly forgotten composer of the classical period, Joseph Bologne, le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. In his day, he was known as much for his symphonies as his swordsmanship, as much for his violin virtuosity as his trendsetting dress, and as much for his equestrian skills as his many romantic dalliances. In fact, only one thing kept him from attaining the uppermost heights of his profession and immediately securing his place in music history - he was, in the parlance of his era, a mulatto.

Born sometime around 1745 on the island of Guadeloupe in the French West Indies, Saint-Georges was the illegitimate son of George Bologne, a French plantation owner, and one of his house slaves, a teenaged girl from Senegal named Nanon. Bologne was remarkably dedicated to his mistress and their son. Defying the Code Noir - a royal decree designed to define the conditions of slavery in the French colonies - he treated Saint-Georges as a member of his family. And, although little is known about Saint-Georges' s early years, it is easy to imagine him growing up a relatively privileged child, spending most of his time running, swimming, and generally frolicking through Guadeloupe's paradisial landscapes.

But Bologne wanted a better life for his son than the colonies could offer. In 1753, Saint-Georges's father took him to Paris, where he received an education in the gentlemanly arts of fencing, music, and manners. After completing his studies, Saint-Georges was made a Gendarme de la Garde du Roi and introduced to the frothy upper classes of French society. He danced in glittering ballrooms, conversed in delicately appointed parlors, attended shows at opulent concert halls, and was rumored to frequent a number of ladies' boudoirs. "He loved the ladies!" says Pettaway. "And the ladies loved him!"

And who could blame them? He was handsome, athletic, well connected. And, of course, there was his music. Only about a third of hLs compositions have survived the last two hundred years, but those that have, says Pettaway, are "certainly on par with the works of Mozart and Haydn." Music of the classical period is characterized by its careful attention to balance, symmetry, and melody; and "if you look at the form of a Mozart symphony," Pettaway explains, "you can see the same form in the music of Saint-Georges." Which is not to say that he was imitating the Austrian prodigy. In fact, Mozart, who was still a teenager scouring Europe for steady work when Saint-Georges's musical career was at its peak, is thought to have "quoted" a melodic line from one of Saint-Georges's violin concertos in his Symphonie Concertante in ? …

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