Why have we forgotten ‘the most accomplished man in Europe’?

A new play centres on the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the brilliant musician who shared a flat with Mozart and befriended Marie Antoinette

A report by Ivan Hewett for London’s Telegraph.

There are some musicians whose lives are so packed with excitement, romance and danger that you can hardly believe they’re not fiction. One of them is the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who was famous all over Europe during his lifetime, vanished for two centuries, and is now being rediscovered.

Born plain Joseph Bologne to a plantation owner and his slave wife in the French colony of Guadeloupe in 1745, he settled in France as a free man, where he was soon ennobled thanks to his world-beating fencing skills. He pursued numerous other careers with equal brilliance: virtuoso violinist, composer of operas and a dozen violin concertos, orchestra director, concert promoter, anti-slavery campaigner, and latterly the commanding officer of the first black regiment in the French army, defending the fledgling Revolution from its enemies. 

Now Bologne’s story is being brought to the stage by the American musicologist and director Bill Barclay. His play The Chevalier, which has already been seen in the US, opens next month at Snape Maltings in Suffolk and he tells me of his embarrassment when Chi-chi Nwanoku (head of the Chineke! orchestra) and Globe trustee Margaret Casely-Hayford approached him with the idea for a new work. “How could I, an expert in 18th-century music, never have heard of this person?”

The fact that such a staggeringly talented musician, described by the future president of the US John Adams as “the most accomplished man in Europe”, simply disappeared from the record has more than one explanation. “Racism is certainly the biggest factor,” says Barclay, “but also the whole musical culture in France in Bologne’s period, which was leading up to the French Revolution, has simply disappeared from people’s consciousness. Mozart’s star was rising as Bologne’s was waning, and then along came Beethoven, and so the whole centre of gravity shifted to Vienna.”

Barclay focuses his drama on a key period in BologneA’s life in the late 1780s, when he shared a flat with Mozart. The other two characters in this four-hander play-cum-concert are Marie Antoinette, the doomed queen who may possibly have had an affair with Bologne, and Choderlos de Laclos, army officer and author of the scandalous epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, who wrote a libretto for one of Bologne’s operas.

Many strings to his bow: violinist Brendon Elliott as the hero of The Chevalier in a US production
Many strings to his bow: violinist Brendon Elliott as the hero of The Chevalier in a US production

“I wanted to focus on three outsiders,” says Barclay. “As well as Bologne, there’s Laclos, whose immoral novel made him unacceptable in polite society. There’s Marie Antoinette, the Austrian-born queen who had to face truly horrendous misogyny, and I think was woefully misunderstood. She realises there are limits to her power, and becomes an arts philanthropist, which is how she gets involved with Bologne and Mozart – who is also an outsider in Paris, and quite an arrogant one, but meeting Bologne leads to a kind of humbling, when he realises that Bologne had to fight against the kind of prejudice that he will never have to face.”

Bologne himself is represented twice on stage, once as the swashbuckling, impossibly romantic human being, and again as a violinist. The musician who has to emulate Bologne’s famous virtuosity is Braimah Kanneh-Mason, the violinist and second-oldest of the mighty Kanneh-Mason septet of musical siblings. He tells me: “I have to play around 10 pieces at certain moments in the drama. There’s a movement from a Sinfonia Concertante, which is a form Bologne actually invented, and a movement from the A major Violin Concerto, plus a number of smaller pieces.”

How would he describe their style? “Bologne was an astonishing violinist, and his concertos are far more virtuoso than Mozart’s, full of flashy passages and lots of written-out ornamentation which is tricky to play. But he knew how to write a good tune as well.” 

As for Bologne the man, the task of bringing this staggering over-achiever to life falls to Nigerian-born, New York-based actor Chukwudi Iwuji, best-known for his numerous roles at the RSC, and who also starred in the recent HBO Max series Peacemaker. He says that, as a black actor: “I faced certain challenges when I started out, but to understand the challenges facing Bologne you have to multiply that by about 300, just to begin to get an idea of his bravery, his confidence, his fear. I mean what a incredible dreamer, to believe he could take over the Paris Opera, that he could address a queen eye-to-eye – well this guy must have had a fire in him that was quite unquenchable.”

Bologne never got to take over the Opera, as the female singers declared they could not in all conscience submit to the orders of a “mulatto” – one piece of evidence that Bologne’s life was far from plain sailing. However, Iwuji says: “Danger didn’t terrify him. My instinct in portraying him is that stagnation was probably his biggest fear. He felt he had to be always striving to improve every side of his character, he had this constant restlessness. His brilliance made him attractive to people, but also there’s a kind of untouchable quality in him, as if he were holding himself aloof.” 

The world, however, now seems ready to embrace Bologne. His music is enjoying a revival, with numerous recordings and performances in the offing. And thanks to this play, the extraordinary man behind the music will finally be revealed. 

The Chevalier is at Snape Maltings, East Suffolk, on March 19 (brittenpearsarts.org) and St Martin in the Fields, London WC2 on March 21 (stmartin-in-the-fields.org)

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