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  • Joseph Boulogne, also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is perhaps the most famous musician and composer you've never heard of.

  • A soldier, athlete, musical genius and revolutionary, he was the crème de la crème of 18th Century French society.

  • Boulogne was born in 1745 on the Carribean island of Guadeloupe, then part of a large French empire in the Americas.

  • His mother was an enslaved Senegalese woman called Nanon. His father was George Boulogne, a white plantation owner.

  • Unusually for an illegitimate, mixed-heritage child , Boulogne was given his aristocratic father's name.

  • George Boulogne was keen for his son to receive a good education and he was sent to France to be tutored in literature and fencing.

  • As well as showing great skill in sport, Boulogne was intelligent and charismatic, which along with his father's social connections meant he was granted access to elite circles of French society.

  • It didn't hurt that he was quite the looker, too.

  • As if being handsome, clever and a champion athlete wasn't enough, Boulogne was a seriously skilled musician and composer.

  • His main instrument was the violin, and by 1761 he was made a member of the elite Gendarmes de la Garde, the royal guards, as a soldier and musician.

  • It is around this time that he became known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, in recognition of his skill as a fencer and horseman.

  • He was then invited to join the incredibly prestigious Concert des Amateurs as first violinist, and he became its leader by 1773.

  • As a composer, he specialised in a new style, called Symphonie Concertante, where two soloists within a wider orchestra would compete.

  • Kind of like a rap battle, but with fancier instruments.

  • By the mid-1770s, Boulogne was becoming popular in Paris with one publication calling him 'the best composer and musician of the kingdom.'

  • Although things were going very well for Boulogne, he still experienced overt racism.

  • Some of the opera's leading women petitioned Queen Marie Antoinette against having what they called a "mulatto" in charge of the opera.

  • Despite this attempt to sabotage his career, he fell into favor with the influential playwrite, Madame de Montesson, who put him in charge of her private theatre and introduced him to her fancy husband, the Duke of Orleans.

  • Boulogne became good friends with the Duke and was devastated when he died in 1785.

  • Soon after, he visited London where he met other aristocrats, like the Chevalier D'Eon, who was probably transgender and prominent abolitionists, such as William Wilberforce.

  • We can't know for sure but it's likely this trip shaped Boulogne's thinking around both race and gender.

  • Meanwhile, the French Revolution had broken out and heads were about to start rolling.

  • Despite his connections to the aristocracy, he sided with the revolutionaries.

  • He became captain in the Lille National Guard then colonel of his own regiment of soldiers, which included many people of colour.

  • As the revolution became more radical, he was rewarded...by being thrown in jail.

  • In an atmosphere thick with suspicion and violence between the infighting revolutionaries, Boulogne was imprisoned for 18 months.

  • Sadly, Boulogne died in 1799, after an ulcer in his leg turned gangrenous, aged around 53.

  • Shortly after Boulogne's death, Napoleon seized power in France and reinstated slavery in the French colonies.

  • The people of Guadaloupe resisted, around 6,000 of them were killed.

  • Napoleon also banned Boulogne's music in an attempt to erase him from French history.

  • Afro-Carribean communities within France, and on Guadaloupe and Martinique have been working tirelessly to keep his legacy alive,

  • and Joseph Boulogne, or the Chevalier de Saint-Georges is now enjoying a long overdue and richly deserved revival.

Joseph Boulogne, also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is perhaps the most famous musician and composer you've never heard of.

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The extraordinary life of musical genius Joseph Boulogne | BBC Ideas

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    Summer posted on 2022/10/28
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