The Real History and Works of Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges

May 8, 2023, 3:53 PM · Had you heard of Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, before the release of the new movie, Chevalier?

Whether this is your first encounter with the 18th Century superstar violinist/composer/athlete or you're a longtime fan, there's always more to learn and celebrate. I hope that the links below will spark many hours of exploration and enjoyment!

Joseph Bologne
Portrait of Joseph Bologne by Mather Brown, dated 1788.

My first encounter with Bologne was way back in 1997. I had recently given the modern-day premiere of a rediscovered concerto by another 18th Century French composer, the Chevalier de Meude-Monpas, who was thought to have been of African descent (more about him later). The beauty of this piece inspired me to search for other historic works by Black composers to record for my first concerto album. I remember walking down the hall of one particular library on my way to the archive and seeing a huge replica of a portrait of a Black man in a white wig with a sword and a violin. Whoa! Awesome album cover alert!

Crossing my fingers that Bologne's music was as great as his portrait, I studied almost ten of his violin concertos to choose my favorite. All were charming, inventive, and brilliant, but I was particularly drawn to Op. 5 No. 2 in A Major which I included on my record, Violin Concertos by Black Composers Through the Centuries.


It's exciting to see that there are ever more albums featuring the music of Bologne. For a wonderful immersion into all sides of the Chevalier's artistry, Cedille Records founder and producer Jim Ginsburg has curated this special 20-track playlist:

There are tracks from Cedille's brand-new world-premiere recording of the opera "L'Amant Anonyme" which is mentioned prominently in the film, violin concerto tracks including a new one by Randall Goosby recorded for the film, movements from sinfonias concertantes and string quartets, a symphony movement, a song, and a solo piano piece.


Over the years since I first learned his concertos, I've really enjoyed exploring Bologne's sinfonias concertantes, a genre that he helped pioneer. In fact, the long-standing compliment-yet-error of referring to Bologne as "The Black Mozart" is rendered false when you realize that it was Joseph's sinfonias concertantes which inspired the younger Wolfgang's! When she was five years old, my daughter Sylvia commented, "Mommy, isn't Mozart actually the white Bologne?" While I explained that each artist is their own unique individual, I had to acknowledge that her idea was certainly more logical!

Bologne has a small but significant body of chamber music which is well worth playing. His string quartets were the first by a French composer, and there are three sonatas for violin and piano. His six sonatas for two violins are a particularly welcome addition to the repertoire. Those latter are each in two movements, with the first in sonata-allegro form and the second a theme and variations. Each violin part has an assigned role, with most of the melodic and virtuosic material being played by Violin 1, accompanied by Violin 2.

Having grown up enjoying the interplay between the parts of such duos as those by Viotti and Pleyel, I've experimented with rearranging the parts to trade off phrases. Here is an example, my version of the second movement of Sonata No. 4 in G (Click here to download the PDF of the sheet music).

Bologne Duet

A simpler solution could be to simply reverse roles one variation at a time. Be sure to check out this fun video of Augustin Hadelich playing both parts of Sonata No. 3!

Many of Bologne's compositions in their original 18th Century printing can be found on IMSLP (on this page). However, in the case of the orchestral works, this means that there is no conductor score, measure numbers, or corrections of misprints. Information about modern editions of many of these works can be found in the repertoire directories of my RBP Foundation's Music by Black Composers project (which you can find here).

Considering Bologne's musical ingenuity, violinistic virtuosity, and European prominence, it is disappointing to note that the two seminal books about interpretation of violin music of the classical period, those by Clive Brown (Classical and Romantic Performing Practice 1750-1900) and Robin Stowell (Violin Technique and Performance Practice in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries), do not contain a single musical example from his works nor mention of his existence. As we in the performance world are catching up with a composer who should have been part of the canon all along, it is to be hoped that the world of musicology is also making similar efforts.


It's very exciting that Classical Kids, who have created favorites like "Beethoven Lives Upstairs" and "Tchaikovsky Comes to America," is rolling out their new production Saint-Georges' Sword & Bow next season! I was fortunate to collaborate with them as Music Consultant for the project and can't wait to see the preview show this summer.

Three wonderful children's books have been written about Bologne. You can find links to all of them, plus many other children's books about Black classical music-making, on MBC's website.

Bologne is also one of the 40 composers featured in The RBP Foundation Coloring Book of Black Composers. Here is his drawing and bio from the book (click here to download the PDF).

Joseph Bologne coloring page
Joseph Bologne coloring page.

Young violinists can find a first-position version of a Bologne melody in Music by Black Composers Violin Volume I. Here is a video of Sphinx Laureates Adé Williams and Clayton Penrose-Whitmore performing it, and a video of my daughter Sylvia performing it for her 1,200th Practicing Day recital. Fun fact: when you see the actor playing the violin in the "Chevalier" film, you're actually listening to Clayton! MBC's Violin Volume II (currently at the graphic designer on its way to the printer) will also include a work of Bologne, as will future volumes in the series.

And for the young at heart of all ages, here is a crochet pattern to make your own Bologne doll!


Gabriel Banat's full-length biography of Joseph Bologne (The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow) is considered to be the most definitive. You can find it in many libraries, and it includes a comprehensive list of Bologne's compositions. Banat also wrote the article about Bologne for the Grove Dictionary.

There are many short videos about Bologne's life on YouTube, but this one is my favorite thus far.

For a nice alternative to the Hollywood film, there is a wonderful documentary featuring the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.

For a short spoken-word biography of Bologne, which includes pronunciations of his name and birthplace, please visit MBC's presentation resources page.

If you're curious to know which other Black composers were born in the 18th Century, please visit MBC's Historic Composers Directory. You may recognize George Bridgetower's name as the original dedicatee of Beethoven's Sonata No. 9, and you may remember a caricaturized version of him from another Hollywood film about a classical period composer, Immortal Beloved. And why is the aforementioned Chevalier de Meude-Monpas not in this list? Well, it turns out that the "Le Noir" appended to his name, which had led researchers to conclude that he was Black, actually referred not to him, but to the color of his horse! If you want to hear a little bit of the Meude-Monpas Concerto in D Major that I recorded, it's featured in Episode 5 of the new Netflix series "Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story" in the following three places: -50:37, -44:28, and -19:36.


This review contains some useful information on what was fact vs. fiction in the movie, though the writer's statement about no vocal music other than L'Amant Anonyme being extant is obviously incorrect.

Here are a number of questions from Laurie Niles after she watched the movie. They were generously answered by Dr. Megan Hill, Managing Editor, Head Researcher & Writer for Music by Black Composers, and Dr. Allan Badley of New Zealand, one of today's best-versed scholars on Bologne.

Did Joseph Bologne receive no inheritance?

He did not. Joseph's father's legal wife was traveling with him in Guadeloupe when he died. Even if Joseph had been named in his will earlier, his legal wife and her daughter's presence (and Joseph's absence) when George Bologne died meant that his overseas properties and the income deposited in Paris for the benefit of Joseph and his mother was eventually awarded to Bologne's legitimate daughter Elizabeth.

Was his mother Nanon freed after his father George died, and did she come to live with Joseph in Paris?

Both Nanon and George were living in Paris with Joseph, probably from the time of his childhood, and Nanon lived there almost certainly after George's death. There is no record either way, to indicate she was or was not freed upon George’s death.

Did Mozart disrespect Joseph Bologne?

Mozart and Bologne lived under the same roof for about a month and a half in 1778, but there is nothing in writing from anyone that describes any interaction, positive or negative. This episode would appear to be a fabrication based on Mozart's generally negative experiences in Paris and his conviction, not without justification, that there was a cabal working against him. Had Mozart seen Bologne perform or lead the orchestra, it is likely he would have written about it to Leopold who would have been vitally interested in such matters.

Did Marie Antoinette have Bologne compete with Gluck for the directorship of the Paris Opera by having them each write an opera?

This is very unlikely for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Marie Antoinette was a strong supporter of Gluck who was her former singing teacher in Vienna. Marie Antoinette, like many of the Habsburgs, was very musical and an astute critic. While there were personal reasons for her to champion Gluck as well as chauvinistic ones (she was supporting one of her own countrymen), her advocacy was based as much on musical grounds: Gluck was the greatest opera composer of the age until Mozart reached his maturity as a composer the early 1780s with Idomeneo. Bologne's record as an opera composer was a good deal spottier.

Was there a petition protesting Bologne's appointment as director of the Paris Opera, thus preventing him from getting the job?

Yes, there was a public and apparently complicated petition (probably not just concerning his skin color, but also complex political issues internal to the opera) that resulted in him withdrawing his name from the directorship.

Did Bologne hate Gluck?

Unlikely. Indeed, one of the motivations for promoting Bologne was that he was known to be a "Gluckiste." Bologne's success in transforming the Amateurs into one of the finest orchestras in Europe persuaded his backers that he was exactly the right man to galvanize the Opéra and raise its standards.

Did he disparage other composers and musicians on a regular basis?

Such a characterization contradicts what we know of Bologne's character from contemporary reports. For example, in La Borde's entry on Bologne in his Esssy sur la musique (1780), he writes: "In addition to his multiple talents…M. de Saint-Georges possesses the uncommon virtues of great modesty and gentleness."

Did he impregnate a married singer? Was his baby then killed?

There is no known record of any such events.

Were there African drum circles in 18th C. France?

They certainly existed in Louisiana in the 18th Century and it is possible that the idea transported itself to France.

Did he give concerts in support of the revolution?


Did he lead an all-black regiment against Napoleon?

Yes, he was named colonel of a new regiment of men of color in 1792.

Did Napoleon prohibit his music?

It's possible, though there is no proof. One theory is that Napoleon might have believed the scurrilous scribblings of Paul Barras when he depicted his former mistress and Napoleon's great love, Josephine de Beauharnais, as "a hetaera (courtesan) with voracious sexual appetites who had even slept with various Black men." Since both Napoleon and Josephine had moved briefly in the same circles as Bologne at one point, he might well have been suspicious of him and banned performances of his works because he could.

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May 9, 2023 at 12:34 AM · fascinating!

May 9, 2023 at 07:59 AM · Thank you for your work in this area, this article and your recordings.

May 9, 2023 at 10:58 AM · Thanks very much!

May 9, 2023 at 12:41 PM · I actually composed cadenzas for one of his concertos.

May 9, 2023 at 01:20 PM · Thank you so much for this information! If anybody is interested, my son and I worked on creating a score and parts for the Violin Concerto Op. 4 No. 2 during the pandemic. We got through all the musicology type stuff (finding mistakes, correcting errors, standardizing bowings and articulations) but we didn't get through editing the solo part with fingerings, cadenza, etc. Happy to share it with anybody who would like to play it, as it is fully in playable condition...just send an email to the link in my profile.

May 9, 2023 at 02:40 PM · Raphael, would you be interested in sharing your cadenzas?

Susan, wow, that is a lot of work, thank you for offering that!

May 9, 2023 at 07:00 PM · Thanks for your interest. I have composed many cadenzas and a few short pieces and have made many arrangements. My current recital program, which I performed Sunday and will again this coming Saturday, ends with my own Twinkleiana, virtuoso variations on Twinkle and has gotten good feedback. I hope in the coming few years to start publishing this material and then make it available.

May 9, 2023 at 08:49 PM · Let us know when you do, Raphael!

May 10, 2023 at 01:18 PM · Thank you for an amazing article! I want to play some of these works.

May 10, 2023 at 04:32 PM · 1. Until the last two or three days, I had never seen Bologne referred to as the Black Mozart. I had, however, seen him several times referred to as the FRENCH Mozart (and, once or twice, Samuel Wesley as the English Mozart - though I don't suppose that the resemblance between Charles Wesley and Leopold Mozart would be THAT strikingly obvious - For a start, how thrilled would the former have been been had HIS son received a Papal Knighthood?).

2. What evidence is there that Bologne's all black regiment of 1792 was ever opposed to Napoleon?

May 10, 2023 at 06:53 PM · The "French Mozart" is interesting as well, but yes the "Black Mozart" reference has been an issue, here is an entire New York Times article on the subject (for anyone who can get past the firewall): His Name Is Joseph Boulogne, Not ‘Black Mozart’ - An 18th-century polymath has had his brilliant music and life diminished by a demeaning nickname.

May 10, 2023 at 07:11 PM · Laurie - the lack of a subscription will block me, but yes I agree with the sentiment. Artists are themselves integrally, and it's unthinking prejudice that takes another artist's name as a reference point, thoughtlessly imagining that it is praise. While Samuel Wesley as 'the English Mozart' lacks the racist bias, it is a cloth-eared and wildly inept description. In the case of Shirley Verrett, sometimes known as 'the Black Callas' in Italy, the epithet makes a needless reference to the singers' races and ignores the fact that Verrett had a far superior voice.

May 10, 2023 at 09:30 PM · Here is one paragraph from the NYT article, just to give an idea of what the story is about, for the majority of us that won't be able to read it behind a paywall:

"When the announcement (of the movie) was made, headlines resurrected yet another moniker for Boulogne: “Black Mozart.” Presumably intended as a compliment, this erasure of Boulogne’s name not only subjugates him to an arbitrary white standard, but also diminishes his truly unique place in Western classical music history."

May 11, 2023 at 11:27 AM · I've just seen a notice, headed "THE MOZART OF THE ANDES", for a concert including music by the most important Latin American composer of the early 19th century, Pedro Ximemez Abril y Tirado.

If and when they remake Romanoff and Juliet, do people think they should incorporate a new scene in which music by "the Concordian Mozart" is performed?

May 11, 2023 at 06:05 PM · At one point, one of the weekly programs on the local classical radio station featured all composers who were known as "the ______ Mozart." Boulogne, Wesley, and April y Tirado were in there, as were Juan Arriaga ("Spanish Mozart") and Joseph Kraus ("Swedish Mozart" though he was not Swedish).

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