As many of you know, I am writing a book on forgotten classical composers. While this composer is not a part of my book, I thought I would take a minute to write about Joseph Boulogne, le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was born on Guadeloupe in 1745 (some sources say 1739), and was taken to Paris in 1753 to complete his musical education, including all the upper-class subjects such as fencing and etiquette. Boulogne grew up to be a famous composer, a fashion trendsetter, a renowned horseman, a skilled swordsman, and more. He was elected to be in charge of the Paris Opera in 1776. Mozart is thought to have quoted his melodies, and more than one famous composer has dedicated works to him.
And why haven’t you heard of Boulogne? Partially because music education supposedly hits the high points, and partially because music education is rushed; even in graduate school, we had time to hit only the major composers in class. But there is another reason you haven’t heard of Boulogne: he was a mulatto, half black. Although the French revered him as “le Mozart noir” [the black Mozart], it would have been fairer to call Mozart “le Boulogne blanc.” Racism played a large factor in how people were treated in the eighteenth century, and it’s time for us to bring these composers of colour into our awareness and into the concert halls.
About a third of Boulogne’s compositions survive, and it’s time for classical musicians and fans of classical music to look beyond the familiar and begin to explore forgotten composers for ourselves.