Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, defies easy categorization.
For Seattle-based violinist, professor and filmmaker Quinton Morris, Bologne (1745-1799) combined “the entertainment appeal of Michael Jackson and the athleticism of Michael Jordan.” Morris’ award-winning film and performance project “Breakthrough,” which he has taken on tour around the world, presents Bologne’s many-layered story through a contemporary lens.
Thanks to the efforts of advocates like Morris, interest in the formidable but long-ignored legacy of this phenomenal 18th-century figure has finally begun to reawaken. Signs of this development can be found increasingly in concert programming, while a full-length biopic, “Chevalier,” which stars Kelvin Harrison, Jr., is slated for release this coming April from Searchlight Pictures.
In the Puget Sound area, a program devoted entirely to the music of Bologne, presented by Early Music Seattle and performed by Seattle Baroque Orchestra, will take place Nov. 12 at Town Hall and Nov. 13 at Bastyr University Chapel.
A lauded composer, celebrity violinist and prominent conductor based in Paris, Bologne commanded a reputation that, some scholars believe, even fired up the jealousy of his younger contemporary Mozart. He performed at the royal court alongside Marie Antoinette, his pupil, and led the premieres of Haydn symphonies commissioned for one of Europe’s leading orchestras.
And music was merely one area in which this extraordinary figure excelled. Even before he burst on the scene as a dazzling virtuoso performing his own violin concertos, the teenaged Bologne was becoming an internationally admired fencing champion. He caught the attention of King Louis XV, who named him a chevalier. In later years, Bologne, by then involved in the French Revolution, was made colonel of an all-Black regiment.
Yet none of these achievements allowed this son of an enslaved Senegalese woman and a plantation owner to overcome the racist barriers that prevented him from being recognized as fully equal to his white peers. Born on a French sugar cane colony of Guadeloupe, Bologne was given a privileged education when his father, a minor aristocrat, took him and his mother with him back to Paris.
Still, his racial background made it impossible to advance. At the height of his career, for instance, Bologne was proposed to take over as music director of the Paris Opera, but after a group of star singers petitioned Queen Marie Antoinette, refusing to work with him because they did not want to accept orders from someone of mixed race, he withdrew from the running.
The injustice continued even after his death, when Bologne’s name was essentially erased from music history — though his adventure-filled biography was appropriated by the mid-19th-century French novelist Roger de Beauvoir in an account distorted by fictional embellishments.
“One of the most fascinating aspects of Bologne’s artistry is that he represents a role model for the ‘real’ gentleman, the profoundly educated musician and simultaneously the skilled athlete,” says Alexander Weimann, Seattle Baroque Orchestra’s music director, who will conclude his eight-year tenure leading the group at the end of this season.
In fact, Weimann considers Bologne “a phenomenon of popular culture” whose importance transcends his musical accomplishments. “He effortlessly excelled in everything that was important to people of his time.”
Versatility is a defining feature of Bologne’s life and art. He moved back and forth from his focus on music (performing and composing) to a social career among the higher echelons in Paris, storied athletic feats, military engagement and even participation in the abolitionist cause. President John Adams famously pronounced him “the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, shooting, fencing, dancing and music.”
SBO will explore Bologne’s musical versatility by focusing on the variety of genres found in his instrumental composition. Along with violin concertos and symphonies concertantes (an orchestral innovation blending symphonic complexity and concerto-like virtuosity that Bologne helped develop), these include string quartets (a novelty at the time in Paris) and other chamber music genres such as sonatas for two solo violins.
For the violin, his musical alter ego, Bologne wrote music demanding an extreme level of virtuosity and technical control. “He has you shoot all the way up the fingerboard and all the way back down at lightning speed,” says Morris, who not only plays several of his violin works but wrote his dissertation on the composer. Bologne’s finales tend to be “death-defying, extremely fast movements that leave you on the edge of your seat wondering what’s going to happen next.”
SBO’s concert master Rachell Ellen Wong, who will be the soloist in Bologne’s G major Violin Concerto and other works on the program, says it’s obvious he was a uniquely gifted violinist. “You can see that in the way he writes not just the violin concertos but in pieces like his sonatas for two violins. They call for such amazing technical fireworks.”
There’s still a long way to go to make up for the centuries of neglect that kept Bologne out of the standard repertoire, acknowledges Gus Denhard, Early Music Seattle’s executive director.
The first step that needs to take place, says Morris, is to acknowledge the racism that has bolstered that neglect — however uncomfortable that may be: “We can’t remedy the past, but we can remedy our actions on how we move forward.”