Crossing Swords with Traditional History

Joseph BoulogneAndrea here, musing again on how our fresh perspectives on history continue to weave such exciting new threads into the tapestry of the past. I love learning about extraordinary people whose stories never got told in the traditional narratives, especially when it’s someone whose life intersects with the Regency era. So I was absolutely enthralled by a recent article in the New York Times on Joseph Bolougne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

A champion fencer . . . a virtuoso violinist and composer of classical music whose sonatas influenced Mozart . . . conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris . . . a man at home in the cultured salons of Paris who hobnobbed with the Prince Regent in London . . . The Chevalier was also famous “across the Pond”—in fact John Adams called him “the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, shooting, fencing, dancing and music.”

So why have most of us never heard of him? Well, my guess would be that it’s because Joseph Boulogne is the son of a wealthy Frenchman with plantations in Guadaloupe and Ann Nanon, his wife’s enslaved African maid.

800px-Young_Saint-Georges_in_1768His father, a commoner who acquired a title—Gentleman of the King’s Chamber—in 1757, acknowledged his son and took Joseph to Europe at a young age, where he provided the boy with a top-notch education at the Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de l'équitation. At 15, Joseph was beating some best fencers in Europe. At 17, hewas publicly mocked by a famous fencing master for being a mulatto, and a challenge match was set up. Public interest was sky high with pro and anti-slavery people betting heavily on the match. Joseph beat him.
(You can read the full NY Times story on the Chevalier here.)

On graduating from the Academy in 1766, he was made an officer of the King’s bodyguard and given the title of Chevalier. (Because he was illegitimate, he couldn’t inherit his father’s title, but adopted the same suffix—Saint-Georges—as his father’s title and became known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges.)

-I_shall_conquer_this- _Rowlandson _1787

Another of the fencing highlights in his life was that he met Henry Angelo, of the famous London fencing family—about whom I’ve blogged before—in Paris, and the two them became good friends. The Chevalier fenced at Angelo’s academy while in London. In fact. Henry admired him so much that portrait of the Chevalier was hung in the academy and can be seen in many Regency prints of the day! (See above.) One of his other famous matches was crossing with the enigmatic Chevalier d'Eon—historians are still not sure whether d'Eon was actually a man or a woman, for d'Eon played both roles with aplomb. For this bout, "he" fought the match dressed in a voluminous black gown.

1024px-Saint-George_D'Eon_Robineau
The Chevalier was welcome in all the best salons of Paris, and became friends with many of the leading lights of society. A wonderful dancer, he was invited to all the grand balls (and, rumor has it, to many of the aristocratic boudoirs.)

The_Chevalier_de_St-GeorgeUnfortunately, history has so far revealed very little about his musical education, But clearly, he was a prodigy in that skill as well. A number of his contemporary composers dedicated works to him, which certainly indicates he was an accomplished composer, too. In 1769, Paris was, by all accounts, amazed to see him playing violin in a new orchestra called Les Concert des Amateurs. (A few years later, he became the orchestra’s director, and it went on to earn accolades as one of the best orchestras in Europe.)

One of the really fascinating tidbits of Chevalier de Saint-George’s musical career concerns Mozart. In 1778, Mozart visited Paris and it’s documented that he was a guest for some time at the same residence where the Chevalier was staying. As the New York Times article says, it would be hard to believe that Mozart didn’t hear play him some of his compositions. And I here’s where it get really interesting. When Mozart returned Austria,his first new composition included a sequence of violin notes that he had never used before—but which were a signature style of the Chevalier’s compositions. (You can hear some of the Chevalier’s music here.)

Chevalier de Saint-Georges’s life was also profoundly influenced by the French Revolution. When the new revolutionary government proclaimed liberty and equality for all in France, he was quick to offer his sword in service to such ideals. In 1792, he helped convince the government to form a cavalry unit of men of color, with himself as its commander—the Legion de Saint-Georges, as it became known, was the first military unit of color in all of Europe. The regiment went on to distinguish itself in the Netherlands campaign.

1280px-St._George_&_the_Dragon_and_Mademoiselle_d'Eon_-Riposting-During the Reign of terror, he was accused of Royalist sentiments, and though no formal charges were ever made, he was imprisoned for over a year. When finally released, he fought to regain his military rank, but despite a long and exhausting administrative battle, infighting and politics prevented him from ever being part of the French army again.

The Revolution had destroyed the world of his youth, and though the Chevalier took solace in his music after the bitter disappointment of his military exploits, and had some minor success in presenting concerts, he never regained the flash and acclaim of his earlier days. He died in semi-obscurity of a bladder disease in 1799 . . . and his incredible life was was soon lost in the shadows of history.

Until now. Recently, Searchlight Pictures announced plans to make a movie about him. I can’t wait to see it!

So, are you as fascinated as I am by the untold stories in history that are emerging these days? Have you discovered any new favorite people that have surprised and excited you?

 

140 thoughts on “Crossing Swords with Traditional History”

  1. Well, that was fascinating, Andrea. What I’m thinking: It’s been a long, dusty road to get to Me, Too and Black Lives Matter. There have always been strong, exceptional people involved/related, but so many of their stories end in heartbreak. But there’s always hope and, often, progress. Let’s hope our era leads forward. At the least, we’re seeing some heartening stories. Thanks for this one. I love the Mozart connection.

    Reply
  2. Well, that was fascinating, Andrea. What I’m thinking: It’s been a long, dusty road to get to Me, Too and Black Lives Matter. There have always been strong, exceptional people involved/related, but so many of their stories end in heartbreak. But there’s always hope and, often, progress. Let’s hope our era leads forward. At the least, we’re seeing some heartening stories. Thanks for this one. I love the Mozart connection.

    Reply
  3. Well, that was fascinating, Andrea. What I’m thinking: It’s been a long, dusty road to get to Me, Too and Black Lives Matter. There have always been strong, exceptional people involved/related, but so many of their stories end in heartbreak. But there’s always hope and, often, progress. Let’s hope our era leads forward. At the least, we’re seeing some heartening stories. Thanks for this one. I love the Mozart connection.

    Reply
  4. Well, that was fascinating, Andrea. What I’m thinking: It’s been a long, dusty road to get to Me, Too and Black Lives Matter. There have always been strong, exceptional people involved/related, but so many of their stories end in heartbreak. But there’s always hope and, often, progress. Let’s hope our era leads forward. At the least, we’re seeing some heartening stories. Thanks for this one. I love the Mozart connection.

    Reply
  5. Well, that was fascinating, Andrea. What I’m thinking: It’s been a long, dusty road to get to Me, Too and Black Lives Matter. There have always been strong, exceptional people involved/related, but so many of their stories end in heartbreak. But there’s always hope and, often, progress. Let’s hope our era leads forward. At the least, we’re seeing some heartening stories. Thanks for this one. I love the Mozart connection.

    Reply
  6. Thank you so much for finding this wonderful musician. I have now listened to several of the links on the NYT article and am listening to his violin concertos now. I love his music. My mother introduced us all to Classical music she loved, so we are all well versed in music styles.

    Reply
  7. Thank you so much for finding this wonderful musician. I have now listened to several of the links on the NYT article and am listening to his violin concertos now. I love his music. My mother introduced us all to Classical music she loved, so we are all well versed in music styles.

    Reply
  8. Thank you so much for finding this wonderful musician. I have now listened to several of the links on the NYT article and am listening to his violin concertos now. I love his music. My mother introduced us all to Classical music she loved, so we are all well versed in music styles.

    Reply
  9. Thank you so much for finding this wonderful musician. I have now listened to several of the links on the NYT article and am listening to his violin concertos now. I love his music. My mother introduced us all to Classical music she loved, so we are all well versed in music styles.

    Reply
  10. Thank you so much for finding this wonderful musician. I have now listened to several of the links on the NYT article and am listening to his violin concertos now. I love his music. My mother introduced us all to Classical music she loved, so we are all well versed in music styles.

    Reply
  11. Fascinating, Andrea. The more you find out about anything or anyone, the more interesting it or they become. (That’s what makes research so exciting.) I suspect that everyone’s life is interesting—we just don’t know enough about it.

    Reply
  12. Fascinating, Andrea. The more you find out about anything or anyone, the more interesting it or they become. (That’s what makes research so exciting.) I suspect that everyone’s life is interesting—we just don’t know enough about it.

    Reply
  13. Fascinating, Andrea. The more you find out about anything or anyone, the more interesting it or they become. (That’s what makes research so exciting.) I suspect that everyone’s life is interesting—we just don’t know enough about it.

    Reply
  14. Fascinating, Andrea. The more you find out about anything or anyone, the more interesting it or they become. (That’s what makes research so exciting.) I suspect that everyone’s life is interesting—we just don’t know enough about it.

    Reply
  15. Fascinating, Andrea. The more you find out about anything or anyone, the more interesting it or they become. (That’s what makes research so exciting.) I suspect that everyone’s life is interesting—we just don’t know enough about it.

    Reply
  16. Andrea, this is a fascinating man. I wonder who else will be brought to everyone’s attention out of obscurity from the distant past?

    Reply
  17. Andrea, this is a fascinating man. I wonder who else will be brought to everyone’s attention out of obscurity from the distant past?

    Reply
  18. Andrea, this is a fascinating man. I wonder who else will be brought to everyone’s attention out of obscurity from the distant past?

    Reply
  19. Andrea, this is a fascinating man. I wonder who else will be brought to everyone’s attention out of obscurity from the distant past?

    Reply
  20. Andrea, this is a fascinating man. I wonder who else will be brought to everyone’s attention out of obscurity from the distant past?

    Reply
  21. Thank you for this. I came across the Chevalier at an exhibition about George IV. As I was typing up my notes for my photography page on D’Eon who is cross dressing in the picture in question, I also looked up the Chevalier, figuring he was just a someone. To my surprise, his story is/was as compelling as his opponent. It’ll be great if there’s a movie about either man.

    Reply
  22. Thank you for this. I came across the Chevalier at an exhibition about George IV. As I was typing up my notes for my photography page on D’Eon who is cross dressing in the picture in question, I also looked up the Chevalier, figuring he was just a someone. To my surprise, his story is/was as compelling as his opponent. It’ll be great if there’s a movie about either man.

    Reply
  23. Thank you for this. I came across the Chevalier at an exhibition about George IV. As I was typing up my notes for my photography page on D’Eon who is cross dressing in the picture in question, I also looked up the Chevalier, figuring he was just a someone. To my surprise, his story is/was as compelling as his opponent. It’ll be great if there’s a movie about either man.

    Reply
  24. Thank you for this. I came across the Chevalier at an exhibition about George IV. As I was typing up my notes for my photography page on D’Eon who is cross dressing in the picture in question, I also looked up the Chevalier, figuring he was just a someone. To my surprise, his story is/was as compelling as his opponent. It’ll be great if there’s a movie about either man.

    Reply
  25. Thank you for this. I came across the Chevalier at an exhibition about George IV. As I was typing up my notes for my photography page on D’Eon who is cross dressing in the picture in question, I also looked up the Chevalier, figuring he was just a someone. To my surprise, his story is/was as compelling as his opponent. It’ll be great if there’s a movie about either man.

    Reply
  26. That is amazing! And he can dance! I have to wonder what he would have accomplished if his father hadn’t claimed him and educated him. I so want to see that movie!

    Reply
  27. That is amazing! And he can dance! I have to wonder what he would have accomplished if his father hadn’t claimed him and educated him. I so want to see that movie!

    Reply
  28. That is amazing! And he can dance! I have to wonder what he would have accomplished if his father hadn’t claimed him and educated him. I so want to see that movie!

    Reply
  29. That is amazing! And he can dance! I have to wonder what he would have accomplished if his father hadn’t claimed him and educated him. I so want to see that movie!

    Reply
  30. That is amazing! And he can dance! I have to wonder what he would have accomplished if his father hadn’t claimed him and educated him. I so want to see that movie!

    Reply
  31. Thank you for this post. I look forward to seeing the film when it is released. The man was a wonder.
    I would like to see more attention given to Martha Washington. I believe she dealt with a great deal of heartache. And she faced life with courage.
    I also would like to see more information about the women who were a part of our frontier. We get all these stories about the heroic men. The women had to be just as brave and make bread at the same time.
    Thanks again for the lovely post.
    I hope everyone is taking care and staying safe.

    Reply
  32. Thank you for this post. I look forward to seeing the film when it is released. The man was a wonder.
    I would like to see more attention given to Martha Washington. I believe she dealt with a great deal of heartache. And she faced life with courage.
    I also would like to see more information about the women who were a part of our frontier. We get all these stories about the heroic men. The women had to be just as brave and make bread at the same time.
    Thanks again for the lovely post.
    I hope everyone is taking care and staying safe.

    Reply
  33. Thank you for this post. I look forward to seeing the film when it is released. The man was a wonder.
    I would like to see more attention given to Martha Washington. I believe she dealt with a great deal of heartache. And she faced life with courage.
    I also would like to see more information about the women who were a part of our frontier. We get all these stories about the heroic men. The women had to be just as brave and make bread at the same time.
    Thanks again for the lovely post.
    I hope everyone is taking care and staying safe.

    Reply
  34. Thank you for this post. I look forward to seeing the film when it is released. The man was a wonder.
    I would like to see more attention given to Martha Washington. I believe she dealt with a great deal of heartache. And she faced life with courage.
    I also would like to see more information about the women who were a part of our frontier. We get all these stories about the heroic men. The women had to be just as brave and make bread at the same time.
    Thanks again for the lovely post.
    I hope everyone is taking care and staying safe.

    Reply
  35. Thank you for this post. I look forward to seeing the film when it is released. The man was a wonder.
    I would like to see more attention given to Martha Washington. I believe she dealt with a great deal of heartache. And she faced life with courage.
    I also would like to see more information about the women who were a part of our frontier. We get all these stories about the heroic men. The women had to be just as brave and make bread at the same time.
    Thanks again for the lovely post.
    I hope everyone is taking care and staying safe.

    Reply
  36. Oh wow!! That was awesome Andrea. And a movie!! Can’t wait. I love when obscure people come to light. He certainly had a fascinating life.
    Thanks for a great post!!

    Reply
  37. Oh wow!! That was awesome Andrea. And a movie!! Can’t wait. I love when obscure people come to light. He certainly had a fascinating life.
    Thanks for a great post!!

    Reply
  38. Oh wow!! That was awesome Andrea. And a movie!! Can’t wait. I love when obscure people come to light. He certainly had a fascinating life.
    Thanks for a great post!!

    Reply
  39. Oh wow!! That was awesome Andrea. And a movie!! Can’t wait. I love when obscure people come to light. He certainly had a fascinating life.
    Thanks for a great post!!

    Reply
  40. Oh wow!! That was awesome Andrea. And a movie!! Can’t wait. I love when obscure people come to light. He certainly had a fascinating life.
    Thanks for a great post!!

    Reply
  41. I have to think that had Jo Beverley known of Saint-Georges, she would have included him in her Malloren novels as she did d’Eon.

    Reply
  42. I have to think that had Jo Beverley known of Saint-Georges, she would have included him in her Malloren novels as she did d’Eon.

    Reply
  43. I have to think that had Jo Beverley known of Saint-Georges, she would have included him in her Malloren novels as she did d’Eon.

    Reply
  44. I have to think that had Jo Beverley known of Saint-Georges, she would have included him in her Malloren novels as she did d’Eon.

    Reply
  45. I have to think that had Jo Beverley known of Saint-Georges, she would have included him in her Malloren novels as she did d’Eon.

    Reply

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