A Champion for the Chevalier

Composer Joseph Boulogne, the son of an African slave woman and her French owner who grew up in France and was awarded the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was largely lost to history until the last few decades, reemerging into public awareness with the somewhat belittling appellation “Le Mozart Noir” (The Black Mozart).

This apparent attempt to diminish the importance of Saint-Georges is not only unjust, but also untrue. The fact is that Saint-Georges was well established (and quite popular) in Paris when the younger, still struggling Mozart arrived to make a name for himself in the City of Lights. Mozart briefly lived in the same residence as the successful and dashing violinist and conductor, who was a favorite of Queen Marie Antoinette. While there is speculation that Mozart was jealous of this successful “mulatto”, and may have even based the villainous black character Monostatos in his opera The Magic Flute on Saint-Georges, there’s little doubt that Mozart was inspired by his work, especially his Symphonies Concertantes, a form of music that Mozart never composed until after he returned to Austria from Paris. Saint-Georges’ original and innovative Violin Concertos also point to Mozart’s later work in the same genre. Taking all this into consideration, could Mozart be nicknamed “The White Saint-Georges?”

What’s not disputable is that Saint-Georges, who lived an exceptionally colorful life in which he excelled as a master swordsman, horseman, skater, and military commander (he led an all-black regiment in France), whose reputation reached even the United States (President John Adams called him “the most accomplished man in Europe”), was an undisputedly brilliant violinist, masterful conductor, and an innovative and highly accomplished composer of opera, symphonic, chamber, and concertante works.

Saint-Georges’ profile has risen in recent years, in large part due to the tireless championing and passionate advocacy of internationally renowned African American conductor Marlon Daniel, director of the Ensemble du Monde, and Artistic Director of the Saint-Georges International Music Festival in Guadeloupe, the birthplace of Saint-Georges.

Under Daniel’s baton, the Ensemble du Monde has performed much of Saint-Georges’ music, including revivals and premieres of his formerly lost works. Most notably, Daniel premiered The Anonymous Lover, the only surviving opera of Saint-Georges, and has recently edited a concert version. He is currently editing the Complete works of Saint-Georges, a task for which he is quite prepared as he has in his possession the scores for “more Saint-Georges works than anyone on the planet.”

In addition to performing his music, Daniel has lectured on Saint-Georges at Yale and Columbia Universities, and is known throughout France as a specialist on the composer. For his elevation and promotion of their native son, the Guadeloupe Government awarded Daniel two medals of Saint-Georges, and was deemed a “Champion of Patrimony” (Arts and Culture) for his work on Saint-Georges.

Indeed, there is no other professional musician who has done as much to revive the reputation of this near-forgotten composer. Marlon Daniel is the foremost authority on Saint-Georges, not just in the field of scholarly research, but the very real and tangible world of performance, with Daniel presenting the composer’s music to new audiences in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean, particularly Guadeloupe where the legacy of Saint-Georges lives on.

Readers are invited to Guadeloupe for the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges in April 2021, where they’ll hear live performances of the music of Saint-Georges, along with composers of African-origin and diverse backgrounds, including contemporary works specially commissioned for the festival.