An Inside Look at the Movie 'Chevalier' about 18th c. Violinist Joseph Bologne

May 4, 2023, 1:01 PM · In recent years the classical music world has started to recognize some of the composers who have been unfairly neglected by history due to their race or gender - left off the program, left out of the concert hall, left out of the history books.

One such artist who is capturing the imagination not just of classical musicians, but of a wider audience is the multi-talented Afro-French violinist-composer-swordsman Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), who is the subject of a new movie called Chevalier. Bologne was the non-marital son of the wealthy French colonist George de Bologne Saint-Georges and an enslaved African woman named Nanon, who worked on his plantation in Guadeloupe. Bologne's father brought him to be educated in France, where he eventually dazzled French society with his high levels of accomplishment.

Actor Kelvin Harrison
Actor Kelvin Harrison as Violinist Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Because of his proximity in time and in classical style to Mozart, Bologne often has been called the "Black Mozart." But this simplistic designation is destined to go by the wayside, as Bologne's music and his story gain greater recognition both inside the classical world and to a larger public. Bologne quite rightfully stands on his own merits.

I've been very curious about the movie, which introduces Bologne and shows a slice of his life's story. In order to get the full picture, I joined my friend Jesùs Florido in attending a panel discussion in early April at the Grammy Museum. The discussion included the movie's writer and producer Stefani Robinson, director Stephen Williams, principal actor who plays Bologne Kelvin Harrison, composer Michael Abels, and score composer Kris Bowers. Then a few weeks later, I saw the movie.

The movie tells an affecting story, rooted in the truth of Bologne's existence but definitely bending some facts and displaying some Bridgerton-esque lightness with period. After some scene-setting, the action takes place mostly during a time in Bologne's life when he is well-established as a talented fencer, violinist and conductor, a darling of Marie Antoinette. But then he suffers a series of blows - among them the death of his father which left no inheritance (true), a failed attempt to procure the directorship of the Paris Opera (also true, and there was a campaign against his appointment), and an ill-fated love affair (embellished, but true that he could not legally marry a white woman, nor could he marry a black woman without losing his social position).

BELOW: Trailer for the movie "Chevalier."

"I was most intrigued by this man who was on an artistic journey," said screenwriter Stefani Robinson at the panel discussion. Robinson said she was not trying to create a definitive biography of Bologne with the movie. Instead, she was leaning in to the questions presented by his life - being simultaneously subject to racial discrimination and also part of the French aristocracy. For example, "Do you lean into your talent to defend yourself?" she said.

Actor Kelvin Harrison said he was immediately taken with Robinson's script - and no, despite Harrison's father being a music teacher, he had never heard of Joseph Bologne.

"I read the script and was crying by the end," Harrison said. "I was so moved by the story, and by how Stefani told it."

Harrison spoke at length about the hard work that he put in, trying to learn to play the violin, in the short span of six months. He already knew how to fence - he had trained in that for another film. But "the violin was the hardest part - these guys are crazy!" he said, laughing. He briefly played violin as a child, but this was still was a major undertaking.

Certainly, anyone on this website understands the challenge - it takes most people years - like five to ten years - to even get to basic fluency with the violin - it's really that hard. That's what makes a highly accomplished violinist so impressive. Harrison said that he practiced six hours a day, with two coaches, Ronald Long and Wynton Grant.

There was a reason for Harrison's hard work - director Stephen Williams did not want to use a body double for the performance scenes; he wanted to shoot them in one take, with Harrison himself at the center of the action. "I wanted to tie the viewer subjectively to that character's journey," Williams said at the panel discussion. "I wanted to reverse the erasure of this person, put you squarely in his footsteps."

Violinist Clayton Penrose-Whitmore recorded much of the sound track for the violin, which includes pieces by Mozart and other composers, as well as a bit of Bologne. The closing credits includes a recording of Randall Goosby performing the first movement of Bologne's Violin Concerto in G Major, Op. 8, No. 2. There is also a movie score composed by Kris Bowers.

The opening scene is a musical duel with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - one of the movie's purely apochryphal set-ups. The audio was recorded first, then Harrison synced his playing with the recording, Penrose-Whitmore said. For this scene, composer Michael Abels said that "it was my job to write riffs that would go with Mozart." He admits that, in that opening musical duel with Mozart, a little Jimi Hendrix may have sneaked into the character's bravado.

In the movie generally, it is clear that Harrison is putting down the correct fingers and moving his bow in the proper direction, but this did not always equate to the appearance of easy facility, as a virtuoso violinist would have. With the advanced state of movie editing and technology, I was surprised they did not decide on the judicious use of a body double, since Bologne's prowess here is so central to the story.

Nonetheless, Harrison's performance paints a vivid and moving picture of a man full of accomplishment and confidence, who must wrestle with societal prejudice in every aspect of his life.

The movie also revolves around a rather poignant love story - an affair with the white singer Marie-Josephine, who is married to an older man who is a general.

"The love story does culminate in a pretty tragic event that does happen in his real life," Robinson said. "It's tender and real - but also incredibly shallow." The movie is intentionally operatic, she said, "so the story itself does feel operatic and should feel operatic."

Kris Bowers wrote the score for the film, and he said he chose the cello as a thematic instrument for Bologne. One of Bologne's pieces that was destroyed was a cello concerto, and Bowers liked the deep voice of the cello to represent Bologne. Using all instruments that would have existed in Bologne's, Bowers nonetheless allowed for more modern harmonies and forms to create an emotional backdrop for the movie.

"Stephen would say, 'Score the man, not the clothes,'" Bower said of the director's guidance on the music.

Indeed, there is a modern ring to Bologne's experiences of having to "be excellent" to get by in a world that values his talents but uses his race to put limits on him personally and professionally.

"Even though it's a period piece," director Williams said, "so much that happens in Joseph's life feels contemporary."

Let's hope that the movie helps in the continuing effort to recognize Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) and encourage the performance of his works.

BELOW: For the closing credits of the movie, Randall Goosby performs Violin Concerto in G Major, Op. 8, No. 2: I. Allegro by Joseph Bologne, with Kris Bowers and the London Contemporary Orchestra.

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