One of the most important influences on Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn, classical pianists, was Joseph Boulogne, otherwise known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, in recognition of his noble heritage. Born in Guadelupe, Joseph Boulogne was the son of George de Bologne Saint-Georges. a plantation owner in France, and a slave. Because he could not claim his heritage as the son of nobility, he changed his name during his adulthood to Chevalier de Saint – Georges, to bring attention to it. Friends and family called him by this name as a child. “Chevalier” means knight in French.
As a child, Joseph’s father provided for him and gave him a good education which included swimming, fencing, and music. He studied classical music with Jean-Marie Leclair, who instructed him in the violin, and composition with Francois-Joseph Gossec, who taught him composition.
As an adult, he pursued a music career at Le Concert des Amateurs orchestra, where the conductor chose him as First Violinist. In 1769.
He became so well-known for his musical ability that Mozart paid him a visit in 1778. Boulogne was known as the “Black” Mozart, “Le Mozart Noir.” Queen Marie Antoinette appointed Boulogne as her music director in 1775 and he was director of the Paris Opera under King Louis XVI. His directorship under the Paris Opera was opposed by his fiercest rivals and as a result, he lost the position. He was then appointed as music director of Marquise de Montesson’s private theater, where he wrote the only music for a musical comedy, “Ernestine.”
Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was not only a leader in his musical career, but he went on to become the colonel of the Légion des Hussards Américains (Legion of American Soldiers) where he met. This legion was a group of about 1000 black volunteer soldiers who were asked to fight in defense of the French Revolution. There he met Alexandre Dumas Davy de La Pailleterie, also the son of a slave and a nobleman, who became the father of Alexander Dumas who wrote the “Three Musketeers.”
His works include several classical violin concertos, symphonies, quartets, operas for the Comedie-Italienne, and sonatas for violin and harpsichord composed between 1773 and 1778. Only about one third of them have been discovered and they show the characteristics of classical music which include melody, symmetry, and attention to balance.