Now here’s something from a less well-known composer: Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799), one of the first composers in the European classical tradition to have African ancestry: his mother had been a slave, and his father was a French plantation owner on Guadeloupe. While still a young man – barely out of his teens – he was famous throughout France on three counts: his superb musicianship – he was a violinist of amazing technique and quite extraordinary virtuosity; his fencing – he was considered to be one of the best swordsmen in Europe; and his love affairs, which were many, and with women of “high rank”. His exotic good looks must have added to his fame. For his music – most of his works are for his own instrument, the violin – he was known in France as the “black Mozart”.
This seems to be the best known portrait of him (holding, you’ll notice, a foil):
A very good biography is available online here. He had a brilliant life and a tragic end: mixed up in the French Revolution, he was imprisoned, escaped with his life, returned to Haiti where the civil war was deeply disillusioning and distressing to him, and came back to France a broken man, to die not long after. When slavery was re-instituted in France, many of his scores were destroyed.
However, thankfully enough of his music exists for us to recognize his genius, and here is the last movement, a rondeau, from one of his violin concertos.
I hope one day he will be more generally better known. There are plenty of middling composers who aren’t worth the trouble of rediscovery, but I think that Saint-Georges is not one of them. He has an individual voice, and his music has a vitality all its own.