JOSEPH BOLOGNE 

(1745-1799)

Highly regarded during his time as a composer, violinist, conductor, and fencer, Joseph Bologne was the illegitimate son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges and his wife’s 16 year old African slave, Nanon. Joseph’s father was a plantation owner who took Joseph to France in 1753 to receive a better education. Joseph is presumed to have studied violin with Antonio Lolli and composition with François-Joseph Gossec; he went on to write a rather expansive repertoire, giving concerts for the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. During his lifetime, Joseph led many critically-acclaimed ensembles as a conductor and soloist, maintaining a favorable reputation in European society. However, in 1776 he was rejected from the proposed position of music director of the Paris Opera on the basis of the color of his skin. While this was the stated explanation, there has been speculation that there was an additional fear that Joseph’s proposed plan to restructure the organization would threaten the job security of some of the members of the ensemble. In 1789, the French revolution declared a stance of fighting for equal rights for all citizens, which led Joseph Bologne to join the army. He became the Colonel of Legion St.-Georges in French Revolution, which was the first all-black regiment in Europe. In the early 1790s he was criticized for participating in non-revolutionary activities, namely his engagement in concerts with the Queen, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Much of Joseph’s music did not survive the revolution, as a great deal of artistic work and instruments were destroyed in the war; however, he has remained a figure of interest in history and has been romanticized in several literary accounts, and many myths about his life surround his record. What is known is that Joseph Bologne was an incredibly successful musician of color at a time when society seldom allowed for their acceptance, let alone their access to resources and education—circumstances that make Joseph Bologne’s life all the more extraordinary. -- Notes by Emily Singleton; Narration by Britnie Narcisse