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Portrait of Chevalier

'The Black Mozart': The life of Chevalier de St-Georges

Image: A 1788 portrait of Chevalier de St-Georges | Public Domain

When it comes to composers of the Classical era (c.1730-1820) the names of Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Beethoven and Haydn spring to mind. However, the name of Joseph Bologne, le Chevalier de St-Georges is criminally missing from that list.

During his life, the French composer of mixed race was more famous than Mozart and so talented that the young Austrian prodigy even borrowed lines from one of his concertos. So for Chevalier to often be remembered as ‘Le Mozart Noir’ (‘The Black Mozart) is rather unfair and some argue it is Mozart who should be known as ‘The White Chevalier’.

Whilst Hollywood has recently looked to address this imbalance by giving Chevalier the limelight in a biopic about his life, few people still know of the man and his many remarkable achievements.

Humble beginnings

Born on Christmas Day in 1745 in the French Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe, Chevalier was the illegitimate child of a wealthy French plantation owner by the name of George de Bologne de Saint-Georges – named after one of his plantations. Chevalier’s mother was one of Bologne’s housemaids, a teenage Senegalese girl called Anne Nanon.

Bologne was remarkably dedicated to Chevalier and took the young boy back with him to France (along with Nanon) to be educated.


As a teenage boy, Chevalier was given training in several disciplines including fencing, music, horse-riding, shooting, dancing and general manners.

Chevalier seemed to excel in everything he did, mastering a multitude of arts and sports whilst becoming a fine upstanding gentleman in the process. By his late teens, his fencing was said to be so remarkable that Chevalier could beat the best swordsmen around.

Upon his graduation from the fencing academy, Chevalier was made a ‘Gendarme du roi’ (officer of the king's bodyguard) as well as a knight. He then adopted the suffix of his father’s plantation and became Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

After meeting Chevalier, John Adams once wrote that, ‘He is the most accomplished Man in Europe’. High praise from a man soon to be made president of the United States.

Musical talents

Although well-known in his early years for his fencing skills, Chevalier’s growing fame pivoted towards music as he began to impress the Parisian public with his skills as a violinist.

In the mid-1760s, major composers began to write concertos for Chevalier to play and by the end of the decade, he was playing concertmaster (first violin) for a new orchestra called ‘Le Concert des Amateurs’.

In the early 1770s, Chevalier began to compose his ground-breaking music, introducing a set of six string quartets, one of the first in the whole of France. His concertos and operas were very well received.

After promotion to soloist within Le Concert des Amateurs, Chevalier eventually became its conductor. Within a few years, the orchestra was heralded as the best in the country and ‘perhaps even Europe’.

Relationship with royalty

Chevalier’s musical talents had not only caught the eye of the French public but also of the royal family. He was invited to play in the court of the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, and even became one of her music teachers, often playing privately for her. She was said to drop by his concerts so regularly that performers wore court attire constantly.

However, Chevalier's reputation as a lady's man sparked romantic rumours about him and the Queen. The closeness they enjoyed was soon about to hurt Chevalier’s career.

Paris Opera

In early 1776, Chevalier was put forward to become the next director of the Paris Opera, a monumentally prestigious position coveted by many. However, racism reared its ugly head as three leading female singers from the Opera petitioned the Queen to block Chevalier from becoming director, since ‘their honour and delicate conscience could never allow them to submit to the orders of a mulatto'.

Instead of supporting her friend, Marie Antionette stayed silent on the issue and unwilling to embarrass her, Chevalier withdrew his name from consideration.

The Mozart connection

After Le Concert des Amateurs orchestra disbanded due to lack of funding, it was resurrected during the early 1780s under a different name, ‘Le Concert Olympique’. Chevalier continued to conduct and the huge demand to see the new orchestra meant new, much larger digs were required to accommodate the large audiences that included royalty. It was during this time that Mozart was struggling to find an audience for his music, he was quite frankly in the shadow of Chevalier.

Whilst it’s unknown whether the two men ever met, they were in Paris at the same time and undoubtedly knew of each other’s work.

A popular theory suggests that the Austrian not only copied ideas from Chevalier’s work but also allowed his jealousy to fuel the creation of the despicable black character Monostatos, who appeared in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.

From musician to soldier to prisoner

By the time the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Chevalier had become disillusioned by French high society and turned away from music and moved towards social change. After becoming an abolitionist, he then became a soldier in the French Revolution, leading the country’s first black regiment of 1,000 men. Whilst Chevalier embraced his task of defending the revolution at all costs, he soon became a victim of the changing winds.

After the execution of Marie Antoinette and her husband King Louis XVI in late 1793, the Reign of Terror swept across France as revolutionaries sought executions and punishments for those with prior links to the aristocracy.

Although Chevalier had joined the revolution, his past caught up with him and he was imprisoned for 11 months.

Final years and legacy

Five years after he was released from prison in 1794, Chevalier passed away alone and destitute at the age of 53 after suffering an ulcerated bladder. Many of his musical works were lost during the French Revolution and history then seemingly forgot about all his achievements. Chevalier’s contribution to music during the classical period makes him a key figure in its development and for that he deserves recognition.