He was a man so talented that he became a favorite of the doomed Queen Marie Antoinette, and was described by the US President as the “most accomplished man in Europe.”
But Joseph Bologne, known to his contemporaries as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, certainly did not have the background expected of a member of Parisian high society.
As the new movie Chevalier shows, he was born to an enslaved Senegalese maid, but he still became adept at fencing, shooting, dancing and, most famously, music.
The violinist and composer stunned audiences with his string quartets, symphonies and stage works, before coming into contact with the French Revolution and eventually ending up in prison.
Bologne, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., can be seen in Chevalier engaging in a violin battle with famed Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had come to Paris as a child.
Joseph Bologne, known to his contemporaries as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, certainly did not have the background expected of a member of Parisian high society
Although the image is fictional, the couple would likely have known each other, in part because they lived in the same ducal palace at the same time.
Both men were also in the same prestigious circles in both the musical world and that of high society.
Bologne was born on the archipelago of Guadeloupe on Christmas Day in 1745 to French plantation owner Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges.
His mother, known as Nanon, served as a maid for Saint-Georges’ wife.
Bologne was trained in France and by the age of 17 had impressed the fencing academy to which he had been sent.
He also studied music, mathematics and literature, excelling in the former in particular.
After being made an officer in the King’s Guard by Louis XV, he took the name of his father’s planation and thus became known as Chevalier St. George.
Although fictional, the dueling violin scene in the new film does demonstrate Bologne’s remarkable musical talent.
Dozens of people gathered to watch his violin concertos, some of which were groundbreaking.
Some academics have even claimed that Mozart “hijacked” elements of Bologne’s violin composition for one of his symphonies, pointing out that it contained nearly identical phrasing.
John Adams, the second American president, called him “the most accomplished man in Europe in horseback riding, shooting, fencing, dancing and music.”
At one point he led Les Concerts des Amateurs, which under his leadership became known as one of the best orchestras in Paris.
Bologne, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr, can be seen in Chevalier engaging in a violin battle with famed Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joseph Prowen), who had come to Paris as a child
Chevalier was released in the UK on Friday. Above: A scene from the movie
His performances were attended by the wife of the new King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, who received private music lessons from the child prodigy.
But she didn’t help him when he faced his biggest crisis. In 1776 he was introduced as music director of the prestigious Paris Opera.
The prospect of him taking up the post prompted three bitter stars of the opera to complain directly to the Queen that “their honor and delicate conscience would never allow them to submit to the bidding of a mulatto.”
Then, in 1779, Bologna was attacked by six men in Paris in an attack that could have killed him.
Prevented from taking up his post at the opera, Bologne turned to social change and championed the abolitionist movement.
Bologne had become a soldier during the bloody French Revolution, which began in 1789, leading a regiment of mostly black troops on the Republican side.
However, he ended up in prison and tortured after falling out with the new regime, which did not ban slavery as promised.
Bologne’s performances were attended by the wife of the new King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, who received private music lessons from the prodigy. The Queen is played in the film by Lucy Boynton (right)
The sheet music covers of two of Bologna’s symphonies can be seen above. The works were published in 1779
An illegitimate child he had fathered with a French aristocrat also disappeared under circumstances unknown to this day.
Some historians believe the child was murdered by the Marquis de Montalembert, the husband of the woman he allegedly had an affair with.
In later life, Bologne lived in poor health in Paris, where he became the director of a new orchestra.
By then, his former champion, Marie Antoinette, had been beheaded along with her husband.
Bologne died at the age of 53 in 1799 of an ulcerated bladder. He was unmarried and had no known legitimate children.
The story of his life and influence now features on the music curriculum in British schools for children between the ages of five and fourteen.