En Garde—Meet the Chevalier de Saint-Georges!

Portrait_of_Chevalier_de_Saint-GeorgeAndrea here, under frantic deadline, so I am re-posting an older blog that is worth revisiting due to an exciting new movie that released last month. Read on!
 
I’m musing 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 an article in the New York Times on Joseph Bolougne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. (image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Costume_de_Lafont_dans_le_rôle_du_Chevalier_de_St-GeorgeA 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.  He 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.” (image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
 
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.
 
His 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, he was beating some best fencers in Europe. At 17, Joseph was 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 as his father’s title and became known as Chevalier de Saint-George.)
 
-I_shall_conquer_this- _Rowlandson _1787One of the other fencing highlights in his life was that he met Henry Angelo, of the famous London fencing family—about whom I’ve blogged before—and 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!
 
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.) (image: Thomas Rowlandson, courtesy of the Yale British Art Center)
 
Unfortunately, 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.)
 
The_Chevalier_de_St-GeorgeOne 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. (image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
 
1024px-Saint-George_D'Eon_RobineauDuring 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. (image: courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust)
 
Until now. Chevalier, a movie on Chevalier de Saint-Georges just released last month. It looks amazing—here’s the trailer.  I can’t wait to see it!
 
So, are you excited about the movie? Are you as fascinated as I am by the untold stories in history that are emerging these days? Have you discovered any new unsung heroes and heroines that have surprised and excited you?
 

40 thoughts on “En Garde—Meet the Chevalier de Saint-Georges!”

  1. The movie Belle is a favorite of mine. I knew nothing about that story until I saw the movie. I like that people are looking for untold stories and making serious movies about them.
    In Chevalier Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Joseph (the Chevalier). He’s 29, a good age for that part. I know him from the movie Elvis, in which he played BB King.
    I have given up on going to theaters, so I’ll wait for TV or dvd, but this is one to watch for 🙂

    Reply
  2. The movie Belle is a favorite of mine. I knew nothing about that story until I saw the movie. I like that people are looking for untold stories and making serious movies about them.
    In Chevalier Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Joseph (the Chevalier). He’s 29, a good age for that part. I know him from the movie Elvis, in which he played BB King.
    I have given up on going to theaters, so I’ll wait for TV or dvd, but this is one to watch for 🙂

    Reply
  3. Fun post, Andrea. Yes, unsung heroes of the past enchant me. I found one and was inspired to write a manuscript about her (although she’s more well-known than Chevalier de Saint-Georges). Have you considered bringing this real-life story into one of your books? Best of luck meeting your deadline–hope it’s for the next Wrexford & Sloane book–I LOVE them ( ;

    Reply
  4. Fun post, Andrea. Yes, unsung heroes of the past enchant me. I found one and was inspired to write a manuscript about her (although she’s more well-known than Chevalier de Saint-Georges). Have you considered bringing this real-life story into one of your books? Best of luck meeting your deadline–hope it’s for the next Wrexford & Sloane book–I LOVE them ( ;

    Reply
  5. I’ve got some CDs of Saint-Georges’ music and it’s really good.
    He’s a great subject story for a modern film – I hope it features Mozart, Marie Antoinette and Henry Angelo!
    I will search on cinema websites in the hope of getting to see it near where I live.

    Reply
  6. I’ve got some CDs of Saint-Georges’ music and it’s really good.
    He’s a great subject story for a modern film – I hope it features Mozart, Marie Antoinette and Henry Angelo!
    I will search on cinema websites in the hope of getting to see it near where I live.

    Reply
  7. Thanks for the recommendation of Belle. I love that all these unsung heroes and heroines are getting their due. It makes history so much richer—and truer!
    Ihear you on theaters. Chevalier will likelyy come to streaming soon.

    Reply
  8. Thanks for the recommendation of Belle. I love that all these unsung heroes and heroines are getting their due. It makes history so much richer—and truer!
    Ihear you on theaters. Chevalier will likelyy come to streaming soon.

    Reply
  9. Yes, streaming is probably a good option, as it’s now hard to find in theaters. But streaming services drive me nuts. I refuse to subscribe to all of them, and it’s so frustrating that you can’t see what you want when you want it without subscribing.

    Reply
  10. Yes, streaming is probably a good option, as it’s now hard to find in theaters. But streaming services drive me nuts. I refuse to subscribe to all of them, and it’s so frustrating that you can’t see what you want when you want it without subscribing.

    Reply
  11. Thank you so much for the kind words about Wrexford & Sloane. Yes, my deadline is for Book 8, which will be out in 2024. Am getting close—huff, puff!
    I actually did an homage to the Chevalier in MURDER AT THE SERPENTINE BRIDGE—I made Peregrine, the new friend of the Weasels, his relative . . .and gave him fencing skills.
    Who is you hidden heroine?

    Reply
  12. Thank you so much for the kind words about Wrexford & Sloane. Yes, my deadline is for Book 8, which will be out in 2024. Am getting close—huff, puff!
    I actually did an homage to the Chevalier in MURDER AT THE SERPENTINE BRIDGE—I made Peregrine, the new friend of the Weasels, his relative . . .and gave him fencing skills.
    Who is you hidden heroine?

    Reply
  13. I would like to see the movie, although probably not until it is streaming or on DVD. We just don’t have many theaters nearby showing anything except blockbusters.

    Reply
  14. I would like to see the movie, although probably not until it is streaming or on DVD. We just don’t have many theaters nearby showing anything except blockbusters.

    Reply
  15. After you posted this the first time, I listened to the music via the link you attached. I loved it and have since found CD’s to enjoy as well as on YouTube. I have always liked music from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods. He is now among my favorites
    I missed the movie when it came to theatres. It may not have made it to any of my local theaters. Will now find it.

    Reply
  16. After you posted this the first time, I listened to the music via the link you attached. I loved it and have since found CD’s to enjoy as well as on YouTube. I have always liked music from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods. He is now among my favorites
    I missed the movie when it came to theatres. It may not have made it to any of my local theaters. Will now find it.

    Reply
  17. Thanks for this post. It is fascinating that there are people who were treasures and their lives are unknown to us.
    I have just finished listening to some of his music and it is quite evident his musical talent was exceptional.
    Life does not always make sense, does it?

    Reply
  18. Thanks for this post. It is fascinating that there are people who were treasures and their lives are unknown to us.
    I have just finished listening to some of his music and it is quite evident his musical talent was exceptional.
    Life does not always make sense, does it?

    Reply
  19. Thank you! I had fun getting the Chevalier into the story that way. I really did want to acknowledge him. And I was thrilled to learn his portrait did indeed hang in Angelo’s fencing Academy.

    Reply
  20. Thank you! I had fun getting the Chevalier into the story that way. I really did want to acknowledge him. And I was thrilled to learn his portrait did indeed hang in Angelo’s fencing Academy.

    Reply
  21. Sigh. I know. Movies are really in a state of flux these days. I think streaming is going to take the place of movies on the big screen—which I think is a shame. I do like going to the theater to be immersed in a film.

    Reply
  22. Sigh. I know. Movies are really in a state of flux these days. I think streaming is going to take the place of movies on the big screen—which I think is a shame. I do like going to the theater to be immersed in a film.

    Reply

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