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Timeline: Chevalier Part 5 - The White Chevalier

For centuries Chevalier has had the nickname "The Black Mozart" but as one author wrote that it might be more accurate to call Mozart “The White Chevalier.”
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For centuries Chevalier has had the nickname "The Black Mozart" but as one author wrote that it might be more accurate to call Mozart “The White Chevalier.”

We’ve been exploring the life of Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges. It’s now time to address the elephant in the room. Anyone who has studied or listened to the music of Chevalier will know him by a particular nickname, “The Black Mozart” a title given after his death.

In just the trailer of the 2022 film Chevalier! loosely based on his life, they show Chevalier facing off with Mozart in a public violin duel during a concert of Mozart’s music in Paris. After being defeated in the contest, Mozart points angrily and asks, “Who is the hell is that?” This is fiction for several reasons. First, Chevalier was 11 years older than Mozart and was far more famous in Paris and all of France at the time. Mozart and the city of Paris did not mix, for many reasons, so it’s doubtful he would be headlining a performance. Secondly, Mozart knew exactly who Chevalier was. It’s possible that they worked together on the score of the ballet Le Petit Rein or “Little Nothings”. Some sources say Mozart brought back some of Chevalier’s music to Vienna. H e even might have claimed some of it was his own. Still other sources say that Mozart was jealous of Chevalier and used his likeness as the basis for an evil character in the opera The Magic Flute. For all those reasons one author wrote that it might be more accurate to call Mozart “The White Chevalier.”

I bring all of that up because the film’s depiction of these two composers, indeed any of these nicknames as well, does a huge disservice to Chevalier. Why do we have to see his value or talent through the lens of the familiar? Why do we have to compare Chevalier and Mozart at all? Isn’t this part of the systemic racism that still holds on to this art-form?

Myra Flynn: In my opinion, all of these revolutions, all of these battles are all a fight towards normal. It's just a fight so that everybody can have equal contributions to the world and equal recognition for the things that they're contributing.

James Stewart: That’s my colleague Myra Flynn, the host of the podcast Homegoings, a righteous space for art and race.

Myra Flynn: The way that we do that is by - and I’m guilty of this too but It seems to be the only way and it's so sad to like, get through to people, but is by re-upping their tragedy and their pain. And so what comes with that, right? like people's reaction? Oh, that's really sad. And I feel really bad. But then that can quickly learn or lead to what do I do? I don't know what to do, and then inaction, and then apathy. And then we're right back where we started.

James Stewart: So let’s go back to where we started with our original question asked by our listener, Janet Watton of Randolph Center.

Janet Watton: Why was Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who was so prominent during his time, now unknown in our time?

James Stewart: There is a simple historical answer to this question. May 20, 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte reinstated slavery, this was after defeating the attempt of Haitian democracy. One of Chevalier’s biographers wrote that this was the second death of Saint-Georges. On the other side of Napoleon’s reinstatement of slavery, all work of people of color that showed, “Serious artistic endeavor were dismissed or banished from thought.” It’s thought that as much as two-thirds of Chevalier’s music was destroyed, including large operas and countless other treasures.

So for the record, Chevalier was not forgotten. He was erased. I think this distinction is very important. I’ve read many different sources that end with something along the lines of “Saint-Georges wasn’t the most prolific composer of his day…” or “there were certainly greater composers…” Those are direct quotes by the way and they’re unfair. So much of Chevalier’s legacy was stolen from us. We don’t know how much music he actually composed. We don’t know what works were destroyed. We can not, in good conscience, make a blanket statement about the merit of Chevalier’s music.

It’s sad that the struggle that Chevalier felt at the end of the 18th Century is still true in the 21st. No matter how much he achieved or how skillful he was, no matter how many articles, recordings or performances of his music take place, the musical establishment still seems determined to keep Chevalier in the box of “The Black Mozart”.

So what do we do with this? At the risk of being prescriptive, I think we need to meet this composer, as well as many others, on his own terms. Chevalier deserves his own place within our musical tradition. Imagine the impact that could be possible if a student of color could see the dark skin of Chevalier, in his powdered wig, next to the white faces of Mozart and Haydn. Too often we’ve associated classical music with one race but the story, life and legacy of Chevalier shows us that this music belongs to everyone. That’s the power of this story and it’s one worth telling over and over again.

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James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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