Owning a vineyard and now also a restaurant—Comtesse Thérèse Vineyard and Bistro in Aquebogue—has forced me to learn a lot of interesting new things over the years.
I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to Joseph de Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George, by violinist Gabriel Kastelle, who is performing at my bistro on occasional weekends this summer. Son of a French aristocrat and an African slave in the French colony of Guadeloupe in the 1700s, the handsome and multi-talented Boulogne impressed Queen Marie Antoinette, President John Adams and the Prince of Wales, among others. His father, George Boulogne de Saint-George, a sugar plantation owner, sired a daughter with his wife at almost the same time as the son was born to the slave. The entire ménage-à-cinq moved to Paris after the elder Boulogne killed a man in a drunken duel, when the son was in his teens.
In Paris, the young Chevalier traveled in elite circles, since his father was an intimate of King Louis XV, father of Louis XVI. The tall, handsome, athletic, exotic mulâtre was described by poets as a “French Hercules,” a “veritable Mars” and a “rival to Apollo.” John Adams, then Ambassador to France, wrote in his journal: “St-George is the most accomplished man in Europe, in riding, running, shooting, fencing, dancing, music. St-George will hit the button, any button on the coat or waistcoat of the greatest masters. He will hit a crown-piece in the air with a pistol ball.” He could shoot a wine cork thrown into the air by his valet, and could swim across the Seine with one arm. Adams was so impressed, he allegedly formed his radical liberal views favoring freeing the slaves in America, 100 years before the idea became a reality.
In addition to being an officer in the French Army, Joseph de Boulogne was France’s finest violinist and the foremost composer of his day, composing violin quartets, sonatas, symphonies and operas. He was music director for one of the two great symphonies in France, which commissioned the writing of the “Paris Symphonies” by Franz Joseph Haydn; the Chevalier himself traveled to Vienna to deliver the commission.
Mozart, who visited Paris at the age of 22 when the Chevalier was 33, borrowed many musical ideas from the Frenchman. If you listen to the Chevalier’s music, you’ll hear the resemblance to Mozart. The Chevalier, in fact, was nicknamed “Le Mozart Noir” or Black Mozart.
Boulogne’s father held the highest expectations for him, and pushed him to succeed. But there was racism in the 1700s, and slavery was still commonplace and legal in France (and America). Black people were regulated by Le Code Noir, or Black Law. The Chevalier had to wear three layers of make-up so he wouldn’t stand out so much at the court of King Louis XVI.
Queen Marie Antoinette, Louis the XVI’s wife, became enamored of the young musical celebrity, and he became her music tutor. Rumor was that more than music lessons went on underneath the harpsichord! Due to the backlash against her showing favoritism toward a “nègre,” ultimately Antoinette was forced to drop the Chevalier’s acquaintance, and she thereafter gave him the cold shoulder.
The queen herself got her head separated from her shoulders in 1793.
The dashing Mozart Noir had a reputation as a lover and allegedly had numerous other liaisons and dalliances at court, but when one of the noblewomen gave birth to a baby with unusually dark skin, it was left to die.
In 1793, Boulogne was accused by the Revolutionary Council of misappropriation of public funds (from the military) for personal use. Though exonerated, he was later arrested for corruption, and spent 18 months in jail, then cleared his name again. He survived two assassination attempts, and died in poverty in 1799, at the age of 54.
After the French Revolution, Napoleon and French cultural institutions in general deliberately ignored the work of Saint-George. The Chevalier is virtually unknown in France, and in the world, today.
The music of Joseph de Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George, is beautiful. Similar to Mozart, but with a slight bit more, how shall I say, depth? soul? heart? feeling? color? (No pun intended). Listen to some of his music. I’ve bought a few of the CDs and intend to play them at my bistro, which was built in 1835 and has been renovated in the Napoleonic style.