“Black Mozart” and the Sound of Race: Discrimination Then and Now

Ruth Lijtmaer, PhD

Joseph Boulogne, also known as Black Mozart: Chevalier de Saint-Georges, in a late 18th-century engraving.  Credit…Bridgeman Images

I am a classical music lover. On 7/22/20 I read an article in the New York Times about “Black Mozart” (Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges). This article stimulated my curiosity about what happened with musicians of color, like him. He is not known by many and there are many more like him, unknown.  As a result of my discovery I wanted to share this interesting story with the reader.

First I will focus on the life of the man who was called “Black Mozart”, separating the sections as if it were a symphony. Then I will discuss the changes occurring today. 

Overture I:  Sfondo (Introduction and background: Chevalier de Saint Georges)    

Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 –1799) was an African-French composer, violinist conductor and fencer. Born Joseph de Bologne, his father was George de Bologne de Saint-Georges, a member of a wealthy family who had lived in the French West Indies colony of Guadeloupe since 1645. In 1740 the family moved to a 250-acre plantation with 60 slaves. One of the African-American slaves was a 17-year-old woman  named Nanon. They began an intimate relationship and Joseph was born.

Young Joseph lived a privileged life on the plantation. His father gave him lessons in music and fencing. As a 13-year-old he entered an elite boarding school for sons of the aristocracy and had a universal education from music to mathematics. By this time, Saint-Georges had mastered both the harpsichord and the violin.

Primo Movimento,  molto agitato (First movement, very agitated). On how Saint-Georges accomplished so much but was still held back because he was Black 

Saint-Georges was an excellent fencer. At 17 years old he challenged Alexander Picard, one of the rival fencing masters in all of France to a duel. He was a student at that time, while Picard was a master, and all of Paris became interested in this duel because you have a Black person who’s a student fighting a white French master. Saint-Georges won. King Louis XVI made him the only black knight in the King’s private guard.

Seven years later, this famous fencer had a debut in a concert, as a solo violinist, playing his own compositions. His music is often compared to Mozart’s, which is how he became known as the “Black Mozart.” Then the French Revolution cut off all of these artistic progressions in French music. Because of that, I think, his story became lost.

Secondo movimento. Molto agitato e molto appasionato (Second movement, very agitated and very passionate). His involvement in the French Revolution

When the French Revolution broke out in May 5, 1789, he joined the National Guard in Lille and achieved the rank of General of the first all-black regiment in European history. The revolutionaries regarded anyone with ties to the aristocracy with suspicion, and Saint-Georges was brought in on fraudulent charges in 1793. He spent nearly a year in prison (Williford, 2010).

 Terzo movimento: La sofferenza, el dolore y la pena (Third movement: Suffering, pain and sadness). Racial prejudice.

Under a new legislation, the “Black Code,” an array of limitations were placed on people of color to register with the police. Due to his African heritage, he couldn’t inherit his father’s titles. 

Perhaps the most flagrant and dispiriting instance occurred in 1776 when he was nominated to head the prestigious Paris Opéra, only to have his candidacy challenged by a group of divas. Obviously they were white, who argued that they could not be expected to “submit to the orders of a mulatto.” Louis XVI had approved the appointment, but the divas’ objections won out and Saint-Georges did not get the desirable directorship.  However, Saint Georges reached the height of his fame within Marie Antoinette’s court, where he was one of her music teachers and became the first western classical musician of color in history. He also pioneered black political life. His anti-slavery stance marginalized him (Menegon, 2017).

Finale: Vita romantica y la morte (The end: Romantic life and his death).

Due to his rising social stature, Saint Georges was invited to salons owned by influential women of the time, where ladies of social standing were fascinated by his music and his “exotic looks”. But his dark skin diminished his acceptability as a suitor for life. He died alone.

This symphony is over but: What has changed since then?

The Black-Lives-Matter movement has brought more insight not only about police brutality against people of color, but also the lack of recognition and discrimination of many Black musicians.

Levinas (1999) in “Alterity and Transcendence” said: “…the death of the other…puts me on the spot, calls me into question, as if I, by my possible indifference, became the accomplice of that death, invisible to the other who is exposed to it; and as if, even before being condemned to it myself, I had to answer for that death of the other, and not leave the other alone to his deathly solitude. It is precisely to that recalling of me to my responsibility by the face that summons me, that demands me, that requires me – it is in that calling into question – that the other is my neighbor” (p. 24-25).

Isn’t this what has been taking place since we watched George Floyd being killed right before our eyes? Isn’t this what the Black Lives Matter movement is asking us, to not “other” the other, but to truly see the fundamental alterity of the “Other”, as an always unique other …with whom we are always and forever indebted simply because the “I” cannot exist without the “you” (Levinas, 1999).

The experience of racism – both direct and indirect way in the form of micro-aggressions or exposure to racism via the media – can have a devastating effect on mental health.

As a result of the Black Life Matters movement, some changes are occurring in classical music. For example, in its 136-year history, the Metropolitan Opera has never staged an opera by a black composer. However, the opening night, September 27, 2021 was a historic event. It presented “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” by the composer and jazz trumpeter Grammy Award Terence Blanchard. Another achievement is that at the opening night of the New York Philharmonic on September 17, 2021, George Walker’s music: “Antifonys” was performed

Even though slavery was abolished, its effects endure through the intergenerational transmission of traumas it perpetrated, and the organizing principles it supported. 

“If we must go back in history in order to understand the present, so too must we recognize that, without intervention, the past will assuredly be manifest in the future” (Gump, 2010, p. 51). 

“Black Mozart” is a good example of how discrimination made him invisible. I believe that because of his race, his music has suffered two centuries of neglect caused by the systemic racism. Even though Saint-Georges was an aberration, a Black master composer held in high esteem in France, still he was discriminated. His skin complexion made him unseen in the centuries to come.

With the examples I gave, we can see that things are changing now and this is hopeful. If Black Mozart were alive today the appreciation that he deserved could make him known and recognized.

References

Balter, M. (July 24, 2020) His Name Is Joseph Boulogne, Not ‘Black Mozart’ An 18th-century polymath has had his brilliant music and life diminished by a demeaning nickname. https://www.google.com/search?q=black+mozart+NY+times+2020&s

Cooper, M. (September 19, 2019). The Met Will Stage Its First Opera by a Black Composer. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/19/arts/music/metropolitan-opera

Gump, J.P. (2010). Reality Matters: The Shadow of Trauma on African American Subjectivity. Psychoanalytic Psychology., 27(1), 42-54.

Jaye, L. (August, 11 2020).Why race matters when it comes to mental health. Psychology

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200804-black-lives-matter-protection

Levinas, E. (1999). Alterity and Transcendence ( pp. 24-25). Columbia University Press

Mullins, L. (August 19, 2019). Exploring The Life Of Chevalier de Saint-Georges, The ‘Black Mozart’. Here and Now.

Smallwood, K ( February 4, 2019) “Black Mozart”: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Williford, J. (2010). A Pennsylvania scholar brings new interest to the composer known as the Black Mozart. Humanities:The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities  (May/June 31, 3 )

One comment

  1. What a different world it would be, if instead of regarding Saint-Georges as the “Black Mozart,” we knew Mozart as the “White Saint-Georges!”
    Tom

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