Given that Mozart’s birthday is coming up on January 27, I thought it would be fun to do a History Hunt miniseries on composers and performers who were just as famous or as talented as Mozart during his time, but who aren’t nearly so famous today.
I first heard of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George when I was introduced to Before There Was Mozart, by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James K. Ransome. It’s a book I’m planning on buying for my studio later this year.
Joseph Boulogne was born on Christmas Day in 1745 on the island of Guadeloupe.
When he was three years old, his father, the Chevalier de Saint-George (a minor French noble) and Nanon, his mother, who was the Chevalier’s mistress (and slave), moved to France with Joseph. It was there he learned to play the violin and harpsichord and grew up to be “tall, handsome, and gracious.” (Encyclopedia of World Biography)
Joseph became famous not only for his compositions and his violin performances, but also as a top-class fencer! He once defended himself and a friend against up to six opponents at a time!
He was first (lead) violinist and later concertmaster (leader) of Le Concert des Amateurs, an orchestra that, thanks to him, became one of the best in Europe. When he appeared in concerts with Mozart, he was often given equal billing!
Unfortunately, while Joseph Boulogne was very popular and became the Chevalier de Saint-George after the death of his father, he still encountered racism. In France at the time, there were laws against mixed-race marriages (and so he never married), and there were some who refused to work with him due to his heritage. He spent a great deal of time later in life fighting for the end of slavery and for equality.
His music is easily available on Youtube; you can listen to a short example below.