Chevalier, a film dramatically retelling the extraordinary life of one of the greatest violinists and swordsmen in history, will soon be released worldwide. Kelvin Harrison Jr., who plays the lead, Joseph Bologne, charms audiences while looking exceptionally good in white tights and a wig. Although it can be easy to get caught up in the film’s dramatics, it’s important to know who Bologne was for more clarity and intrigue when watching the movie.
Often referred to as the Black Mozart, Bologne was an influential person of his time and spent most of his life trying to fit into a world that would accept his talents but not the color of his skin. Here is a little more about the life of Bologne, who would be known to the world as Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
The early life of Joseph Bologne
Little about Bologne’s mother is known, but she is remembered for her exceptional beauty and was originally from Haiti. She worked as an enslaved housekeeper under Georges Bologne, with whom she had an affair and eventually gave birth to Joseph.
Although many fathers during this time denied their children born out of wedlock, especially if they were of mixed race, this wasn’t the case for Joseph Bologne. Because of Georges’ acceptance of his son, Joseph Bologne worked with tutors starting at the age of 8 and received a top-quality education in France.
While pursuing his education, Bologne learned how to fence and solidified his future as a swordsman. Because of his natural talent and advanced skill level, his father ensured that Bologne trained with fencing Master of Arms Nicolas Texier de La Boëssière. At the age of 15, Bologne was defeating some of the top fencers. At 17, he was known as the best swordsman in Europe, exhibiting impeccable speed, strength, honor, and respect for his fellow competitors.
Recognized for his talent and grace, Bologne never let his achievements alter his character. Thus, Bologne was ultimately given the title Chevalier, meaning belonging to an order of knighthood.
From swordsman to violinist
Bologne eventually made a career out of fencing and taught as a professor at the Royal Academy. Perhaps he could have lived out his days as a swift and unbeatable swordsman, but Bologne had another talent he waited years to reveal to the world. As proficient and deliberate as his hands were with a sword, he was artistic and bold with the violin.
He began his career with Les Concerts des Amateurs orchestra, and it didn’t take him long to secure a solo, compose compositions, and become the orchestra conductor. His orchestra became known as one of the finest orchestras in Paris and Europe through his leadership.
Throughout his career, there were many rumors about his relationship with composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Although it is understood that the two knew each other, their exact relationship is undetermined. Some say they trained together and inspired one another. Others say that Mozart borrowed some of Bologne’s work to add to his compositions.
Nonetheless, Bologne’s talent was undeniable, yet some couldn’t get past his bronzed skin tone. In an attempt to shame Bologne publicly, many tried to challenge his skills. One instance occurred when he publicly competed against advanced swordsman Alexander Picard. Bologne defeated Picard and secured his reputation as the best.
Admired but not accepted
Discrimination and dislike didn’t just occur in the world of sports. When the Paris Orchestra was failing, Bologne stepped up to the opportunity to lead the orchestra. Yet when he did, some individuals publicly protested and claimed that the orchestra could never be run by a “mulatto,” a derogatory name for someone of Black and white ancestry. However, that unfortunate event led to Bologne playing directly for Queen Marie Antoinette.
Bologne was well known and admired by royalty, yet he struggled in certain areas of his life, such as finances. When Bologne’s father died, he left his son with a sizeable inheritance. Yet, due to the laws, all the money went to Bologne’s legitimate half-sister. Thus Bologne hustled with fencing matches and performances to support himself.
When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, Bologne did not shy away from the fight. He was appointed colonel of Légion Franche de Cavalerie des Américains (American Free Legion of Cavalry) in 1791. He and his legion were able to drive back Austrian forces. Despite his success in the revolution, Bologne was jailed under a decree of suspicion in connection with his previous interactions with the aristocrats.
Unfortunately, many of Bologne’s royal friends died; however, an overturned decree spared his life. Bologne regained his freedom when slavery was abolished. Perhaps because of his life of fame and danger, when Bologne regained his freedom, he moved to a small town outside of Paris. He lived out his days, until the age of 53, playing the violin and teaching.
Now, over 100 years later, Bologne is being recognized worldwide as the man whose talent transcended politics and racism during his time.
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Kiersten is a freelance writer and coach. As a writer, she has written for Travel Noire, Passion Passport, BAUCE mag, and various travel and lifestyle blogs. As a writer, her goal is to write content that inspires others to take action. As a coach, her goal is to empower women to be their most authentic selves. In her free time, you can find her dancing to any song any where.