Chévalier de Saint Georges – a hero, not only in his time
1 Sep 2023
Dutch musician, composer and senior consultant at the Royal Concert Hall Orville Breeveld is a man with many missions. Most of them centre around sharing his love for music, classical and popular, old and new. But as life goes, one thing leads to another.
And so it happened that over last year he hosted a TV show for which he wrote the pitch himself. We quote: “Europe. This second smallest continent carries a name, which in Greek means ‘broad’ (eurys), ‘face’ (ops). Then, if Europe is the broad face, Africa must be the heart and Asia is a left-arm. Australia maybe a left hand and the Americas a kind of hydraulic arm prosthesis. Europe definitely is not an island and is part of a much greater world for approximately 80 million years.”
Orville laughs and says: “Yes, that was the start, back in 2017. But I could have started with an anecdote too. For example, how during my touring as a professional musician I came across many statutes, street names and coats of arms of people who don’t look like your average historical European. No, they looked a lot more like me, of mixed native Surinamese and West African descent. How come I never learnt about them? Why do our school books not contain migration histories in earlier European history?”
These histories, he argues, could be very important to contextualize contemporary migration to Europe. “As you know the political climate is all about migration as a threat to our societies, but it is time we start realizing about – and start living a collective history. One in which exchange is key, and with stories young Europeans of all different backgrounds can relate to.”
“At home I grew up with Martin Luther King’s books on the shelves. But Europe has had their own historical change-makers. For the TV series I dove into their lives, and followed their footsteps across the continent. To find out about how they wanted to change their societies. And no, the TV series doesn’t provide us with an easy recipe on how to make change, but I hope the historical figures can serve as role-models for us.”
“Chevalier de Saint Georges, for example. Born as a son of a planter and one of his enslaved servants at Guadeloupe, his father took the boy to Bordeaux with him. Joseph Bologne, as was his name, was given an upper bourgeoise education and excelled at fencing and violin playing. After becoming European Champion in fencing, he was supposed to ride an honorary horse tour around Paris, which he, as a Black man, was forbidden to do under the then prevalent Code Noir. As a knight though, he could. Joseph became Chévalier de Saint Georges.
His fame was comparable with football stars these days. Add to that his career as an excitingly virtuoso violinist and you can imagine he was a superstar. Hayden composed music for him to perform, he taught Marie Antoinette how to play violin.
He composed himself too, sonates, operas and music for string quartets, which were all the rage. It is estimated he wrote 1200 compositions, of which some 500 survived into our times. When Mozart, then 11 years old, came to Paris to become a star, Saint Georges was an example.”
Johan Cruijff, Michael Jackson and Martin Luther King
“But racism had its ways. King Louis XVI received complaints when he was to appoint Bologne as concertmaster of the Opéra. Bologne would never obtain that honorary function. As a member of the Societé de les Amis de Noirs [who advocated abolitionism] he visited London, and was assaulted on the streets. With is fencing skills he easily defeated his attackers. His fame grew even more; he was Johan Cruijff, Michael Jackson and Martin Luther King in one person.”
“When the French Revolution broke out, he chose the side of egalité, fraternité and liberté, of course. He was recruited to lead a Black platoon to fight for the Revolution. Later, Robespierre imprisoned him, as he had ties with the Ancièn Régime. After being released Jospeh Bologne retreated into a quiet life, filled with music. He died in 1799.”
With Napoléon re-introducing the Code Noir and slavery in French colonies Bologne’s fame and legacy were forgotten. Only recently has his – influence on – music been rediscovered.
Multilayered Cultural Histories
“But what a story! Joseph has become a personal hero, and I think his presence in Europe could be a leading example for many more. Not only as it shows Black presence in European histories, but also that it takes efforts to change things. As for history to change we need a long-term perspective, it doesn’t suffice to ride ‘the Black flow’, we need activists to keep pursuing change, especially when making change is not in fashion. So, we need heroes to inspire us. This documentary series is all about unveiling the lives of some of these heroes.”