Timeline: Chevalier Part 4 - Revolution
Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a world-renowned fencer, a composer, violinist and conductor in 18th century France. Even with all of his success, there was a limit to what Chevalier was allowed to achieve.
By 1775, Chevalier’s reputation had grown so much that he was being considered for the high post of artistic director of the Royal Academy of Music at the Paris Opera. However other artists and singers protested, appealing directly to the queen, Marie Antoinette. They said that “Their honor and the delicacy of their conscience made it impossible for them to be subjected to the orders of a…” insert a deeply racist slur here about Chevalier’s parentage.
Some accounts say that the most vocal opponent of his nomination to the Paris opera was a scorned lover determined to torpedo his career. But it's clear though that even with all of his success, there was a limit to what Chevalier was allowed to achieve. It didn’t matter what he accomplished or how skilled and talented he was, he would forever be marked. He could not marry into nobility. He couldn’t hold a position of honor. He had come as far as he could go… and then came revolution.
The French Revolution proclaimed equality for all, which meant the abolition of slavery and Chevalier was on board. He joined in 1789 and was eventually appointed a colonel of the first corps of light troops in all of Europe that was made up of men of color. They called themselves Legion de Saint-Georges after their leader.
The revolution began with high ideals but in execution it was not a utopia; accusations and threats abounded. Chevalier was accused of “unrevolutionary behavior”. We don’t know what that actually means or entails. He was stripped of command and imprisoned for 18 months. When he was released he was not reinstated and was ordered not to speak with his former soldiers.
Chevalier entered into a vagabond period, traveling to St. Dominque (Haiti) to aid in the civil war raging on the island. There were forces trying to bring back slavery and Chevalier was fighting to keep that from happening. The darkness of this battle weighed heavily on him when he returned to France.
Chevalier once again asked to be reinstated into the revolutionary army and he signed his petition “George” - no title, no Chevalier, just “George.” One biographer wrote that at this point the man that Chevalier once was, the fencer, the virtuoso, the colonel, was gone. He was not reinstated.
He took a position as director of a new music ensemble called “Circle of Harmony,” but quickly started to show signs of illness, a disease of the bladder. Chevalier did not seek medical attention and died on June 12, 1799. One of his friends wrote, “At his death, there was no knowledge of any family. His father had a legitimate daughter …but I searched for her in vain. Perhaps she had emigrated, or perhaps she had died. So far as I know she had never had anything to do with her half-brother.”
Myra Flynn: It just doesn't surprise me.
James Stewart: That’s my colleague, Myra Flynn, once again.
Myra Flynn: I think what does surprise me is I think, you know, the reopening of this story now. And the reopening, it sounds like, of his music now. What is it about our quest? Is this part of our revolution? To be unearthing the forgotten or the silenced?
James Stewart: I certainly hope so. And the story isn’t over. We still haven’t really answered the question of why Chevalier is not a household name today. That’s coming in our final episode so stay with us and follow the Timeline.