Timeline: Chevalier Part 3 - Rising star
This is our third episode exploring the life of 18th Century French composer, violinist and conductor Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges. In this episode we’ll dive into the early life of this multi-talented prodigy.
Joseph was a bright student and an amazing athlete. He was skilled on horseback, at swimming, skating and marksmanship. Perhaps his greatest physical skill was fencing, which was very popular at the time. Joseph enrolled in a fencing academy and by the age of 15, he was beating some of the finest swordsmen in France.
When Joseph was around 17, he caught the attention of the fencing master Alexandre Picard. Picard made public comments about this young upstart in the fencing world and called him a horrible racial slur. The two were then set to have a duel, a face-off in a public fencing match. People started betting on the competition, so much so that it became a proxy for those who supported and those who opposed slavery in the empire. Joseph won handily, much to the delight of his father, who then bought him a horse and buggy (basically a brand new car).
The next year, Joseph was made an officer of the king’s bodyguard and chevalier (or knight) adding to his long name, Joseph Bolone Chevalier de Saint Georges. He became a darling son of Parisian society. Everyone wanted to be around him. When others challenged him, he was usually able to disarm them with his words, his charm and his wit. When that didn’t work, he took up arms. He was nicknamed “the god of arms” meaning he was well-versed in many different kinds of physical combat and even taught the discipline at the Royal Academy.
At the same time Chevalier was also deep in his studies as a violinist and composer. It was expected that members of French nobility would take music lessons and some excelled to the point of being called “professional.” Chevalier became a professional. Composer Carl Stamitz even called him “an invaluable gift.” Chevalier studied the violin with prominent musicians like Jean Marie LeClair, one of the founders of the French violin school, and composition with Francois-Joseph Gossec, who dedicated his six trios (op. 9) to Chevalier. In 1769, Chevalier was appointed first violin of a new ensemble founded by Gossec and bankrolled by his father called the “Concert of Amateurs.” The group quickly won acclaim in Paris.
When Gossec left the leadership of the ensemble a few years later, Chevalier, only 24 at the time, took over as director. This was a large orchestra with over 75 musicians. During his time as director the orchestra debuted and introduced the symphonies of Franz Joseph Haydn to the city of Paris. Later, Chevalier would commission Haydn and work with the older composer in Vienna during the creation of Haydn’s Paris symphonies.
Chevalier premiered his own two violin concertos (op. 2) in 1772. They were so successful that a French publisher jumped at the opportunity to have exclusive rights to print any of his future works (like a big record deal or recording contract). Chevalier’s star was rising in Paris and it seemed like the sky was the limit.
Myra Flynn: But I’m guessing the sky is not the limit. Just based on the way you just said that. Sounds like we’re gonna hit some limits here soon.
James Stewart: That’s my colleague, Myra Flynn the creator and host of the podcast Homegoings. And of course, Myra’s right, there’s a limit coming to this story. Chevalier’s amazing talent and rich father can only take him so far.
Myra Flynn: Yeah, there’s just always a very common thread or story of how far you can get under that protection before that person’s gone and you have to fend for yourself and the world is not going to allow that. You are how people see you. And if you’re Black then you will always be marked in this world. The revolution to turn that around is, you know, it ebbs and flows. It’s in some ways just beginning and in some ways just beginning all over again.
James Stewart: In our next episode we’ll explore how Chevalier sought out revolution. Stay with us and follow the Timeline.