Joseph Bologne, known as the Chevalier de St. Georges, was born in 1745, the son of a French planter in the West Indies and an African servant. Taken to Paris at age seven by his father to be educated, he became an excellent violinist and a swordsman of the highest caliber, and was a noted personality in Paris for a long time. Having been a star student starting at age thirteen at the Academie royale polytechnique des armes et de l’equitation, he defeated at the age of seventeen the head of a rival academy, thus making his reputation. On the other hand, we know nothing precise about his musical education, although it is clear he must have studied the violin assiduously. In 1764, the composer Antonio Lolli composed two violin concertos for him, and in 1766 the renowned Francois-Joseph Gossec dedicated a set of six Trios to him, so clearly his talents were developed early and blossomed alongside his military prowess.
When his father returned to Guadaloupe in 1764 after the Seven Years War, he left Joseph and his mother well set up in Paris with a large annuity. When he graduated the Academie royale in 1766 he was made a Gendarme du roi and a Chevalier, took his father’s Saint-Georges (actually the name of one of his plantations settled on him when he was made a Gentleman of the King’s Chamber in 1757), and thenceforth was known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
In 1769 he joined Gossec’s newly-formed orchestra Le concert des amateurs, and by 1771 was the concertmaster. The following year he performed his first two concertos, with Gossec conducting, to great applause. In the following eight years, he composed three sets of six string quartets (the first such composed in France), fourteen violin concertos, two symphonies, eight sinfonia concertantes, followed by six operas comiques, a truly prodigious amount of music considering the extent of his other activities. In 1773 Gossec took over the troubled Concert spirituel, and named the Chevalier as his successor at the Amateurs. In less than two years under his direction, this orchestra became the most disciplined group in Paris since Lully’s time, with a reputation all over Europe. Queen Marie-Antoinette attended their concerts at the Palais de Soubise, and as she sometimes appeared without warning, the musicians took to wearing court attire at all times. As a contemporary source reported: “Dressed in rich velvet or damask with gold or silver braid and fine lace on their cuffs and collars and with their parade swords and plumed hats placed next to them on their benches, the combined effect was as pleasing to the eye as it was flattering to the ear.”
When his father, who had returned to Guadaloupe, died in 1774, the annuity he had bestowed on the Chevalier was assigned to his legitimate half-sister, and he had to cease donating his services to the Amateurs, who commenced paying him generously, based on how the orchestra had become the largest and most prestigious ensemble in Europe.
In 1781, the Amateurs were disbanded for financial reasons, but the Chevalier appealed to his friend and fencing partner the Duke of Chartres, who had recently united the Masonic organizations in France, and the Duke revived the orchestra as part of la Loge Olympique, an exclusive Freemason lodge. As Le Concert Olympique, it performed in the grand salon of the Palais Royal, with essentially the same musicians. In 1785 the Count D’Ogny, grandmaster of the lodge and member of the cello section, authorized the Chevalier to commission a set of symphonies from Franz Josef Haydn, his Paris Symphonies, which were premiered in a large hall with the Chevalier conducting before the large public interested in Haydn’s work. The Chevalier also negotiated with Haydn for his commission, which was quite generous, and included an extra sum for residuals – normally composers got nothing once their pieces were out in the world.
The one instance where racial discrimination affected the career of the Chevalier occurred when his name was put forward by a “consortium of capitalists” (according to Baron Grimm) to take over the trouble Academie royal de musique (the Paris Opera). It seems that three of the sopranos, perhaps alarmed by the discipline the Chevalier imposed on his ensembles, petitioned the Queen to the effect that they could not be expected to take direction from a black man. The Chevalier immediately withdrew his name from consideration to avoid embarrassing the Queen, but the fallout from the affair led Louis XVI to take back the institution from the city of Paris (it had been given to the city by Louis XIV almost a century before), and led the Queen to have her musicales in the privacy of her chambers at Versailles, where the audience was her private circle and only a few musicians were invited to play. She probably played piano with the Chevalier playing the violin in his sonatas.
In 1785 the Duke of Orleans died, and the Chevalier’s friend the Duke of Chartres acceded to this title. With his old circle unable to help him, the Chevalier was once again saved by his friend, who set him up in an apartment in the Palais Royal, where he inevitably was drawn into the plots to make France a constitutional monarchy under the Duke, a path seen by the Orleanist side as the only way to avoid a bloody revolution. The story of the Chevalier becomes very complicated politically at this point, as he became an important player, sent to London, and eventually returning to France to lead what became known as the Legion Saint-Georges, the regiment of blacks fighting for the Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, starting in 1792.