The historical drama “Chevalier” whisks viewers away to the French royal court of the 1700s, where a young man — the title character — rises from obscurity to be an internationally-famed musician and composer. The true story of the man known as “Chevalier,” however, is even more impressive than the movies can imagine.
Who Was Chevalier?
Chevalier’s full name and title was Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Born in 1745, he was the son of Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, a wealthy and married plantation owner in the then-French Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe (today an overseas department of France), and an enslaved Senegalese woman named Nanon, who was most likely around 16 years old when her son was born.
Saint-Georges acknowledged Joseph’s existence and Relationship to him. Beginning at age eight, Joseph was taken to France to be educated at a Jesuit school, and his parents joined him in France a few years later. By the time he was a teenager, Joseph was rapidly gaining notice as a skilled fencer. Soon, his achievements were so great that he caught the attention of King Louis XV, who named him an officer of the royal guards and a chevalier — hence his best-known moniker, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Years later, he continued to underline his combat skills by fighting in the French Revolution (in service of the First Republic).
His fencing prowess, however, would not be his only claim to fame. When he was in his twenties, Joseph burst into the music scene as a violin prodigy and composer, with little known historically about how he received his music training. He earned great renown for his concertos and his performances, particularly with a new symphony orchestra called Les Concerts des Amateurs; he became the orchestra’s conductor in 1773 and led it to great acclaim. He was a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, among other classical music greats. During his musical career, he also was commissioned by theaters to write operas and was invited to appear in the salons of the wealthy elite.
Was Chevalier Black?
The real Chevalier was a mixed-race Black man, the son of a white plantation owner and a Black enslaved woman. As a result — despite his talent, fame, and acclaim — he faced many obstacles in his career and life. In 1776, he was a leading candidate to take over as music director of the Paris Opera, but a group of singers wrote directly to Queen Marie Antoinette (who was herself a student of Joseph’s), insisting that they would not take orders from a mixed-race man. The queen did not directly intervene, nor did she defend her tutor, and news of the petition was sufficient for Joseph to rescind his application.
For many years, the legacy of the “Chevalier” has been subsumed by the greater fame of his white contemporaries. He has even, on many occasions, been referred to as “the Black Mozart.” In reality, his legacy should and can stand on its own, as a “Renaissance man” who was skilled and renowned both athletically and artistically, and as the first known European musician and composer of African descent to achieve widespread fame and critical praise.
“One of his close friends wrote a biographical notice a few decades after his death and, unlike other more famous composers of this period, it’s very clear that music was just one facet of Bologne’s personal and professional identity. His friend praises his upstanding character and his accomplishments as a swordsman, a dancer, a swimmer, an ice skater, and so on. It’s truly extraordinary,” music professor Julia Doe told The Guardian.
“Chevalier” marks the first major on-screen depiction of this remarkable life, but it seems unlikely to be the last.