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The ‘Black Mozart’

Rediscovering the life of the Monsieur de Saint-George

By Leigh E. Rich

Monsieur de Saint-George: Rediscovering the Life of the “Black Mozart”
By Alain Guédé
Translated from French by Gilda Roberts
December 2003
304 pages
$26 U.S./$39 Canada

“The more perfect a thing is,” so wrote Dante in The Divine Comedy, “the more it feels of pleasure and of pain.” And according to French journalist Alain Guédé, there have been few so perfect as Joseph Bologne—aka Monsieur de Saint-George.

Heralded one of the finest swordsmen in his time as well as a sought-after horseman, an accomplished dancer, and a Don Juan par excellence, this contemporary of Haydn and Mozart was best known as a virtuosic violinist and a celebrated composer. During his lifetime, Saint-George would become a favorite in the Parisian salons, the conductor of two orchestras, an admired composer of romances and opera, Marie-Antoinette’s musical adviser, and a colonel in the French Revolution.

He would not, however, ever shake the prejudice with which French society regarded him, this “half-breed” son of a French nobleman and a slave. Born in Guadeloupe in the Lesser Antilles in 1739, Saint-George’s mixed heritage and dark skin would haunt him throughout his life in France and England and arguably after his death in 1799. Even as first violin and occasional orchestra director for the Concert des amateurs in the 1770s, for example, Saint-George combated internal jealousies and “sarcastic remarks regarding the thick layers of powder he used to hide the color of his skin.”

Forgotten in the annals of history and resurrected here in Monsieur de Saint-George: Rediscovering the Life of the “Black Mozart,” Guédé paints a flawless though ultimately two-dimensional portrait of a man whose remarkable story and music “entered obscurity and remained there for nearly two centuries.”

Though Saint-George’s recognition as a genius in his own right—and not just in relation to Mozart, whom he surpassed both financially and politically—is long overdue, Guédé’s account is wanting on multiple levels. No doubt well researched and thorough, the organization of the text itself is clunky, bobbing about in time and meandering from its main subject with nearly every passing paragraph.

While chronicling Saint-George’s existence from birth to death, Guédé forces his readers into a bizarre and contorted mental dance as if chasing a plastic bag caught in a whirlwind—just when you think you’ve got hold of Guédé’s elusive objet trouvé, it is whipped away in an entirely cockeyed direction. For instance, Guédé depicts the budding and subsequent loss of Saint-George’s first love in less than a page, despite the fact that Marie, forced to marry a white man, was reputedly the inspiration for one of his romances later famous in the salons and concert halls, The Other Day Beneath the Trees. Because of this “blow to his love and pride,” Guédé writes before changing subjects to the real estate of the wealthy under Louis XIV, “never again would he think of marrying.”

Thus, the book well nigh verges on false advertising, as it is more at times a digest of French political and musical history or a tome on composers François-Joseph Gossec and Christoph Gluck; fencers La Boëssière and Henry Angelo; and the duc d’Orleans and other French nobility.

Guédé also resembles more cheerleader than biographer. Obviously passionate about his subject who inconceivably rose beyond his glass-ceilinged station and excelled in every undertaking, any dimensional understanding of Saint-George the man gets muddled while Guédé is singing his praises. To wit: “His compelling presence, his physical grace, and his talents as dancer and musician made him an irresistible figure”; “at twenty-one years of age, the chevalier de Saint-George was indeed the best fencer in the kingdom”; “Saint-George slept on a pillow stuffed with locks of hair he had stolen from each of his lovers.”

Translated from French, Monsieur de Saint-George additionally requires a working knowledge of the region’s cultural and aristocratic history, as many of the rich and famous not readily recognized by an American audience are tossed about with intimacy. What’s more, Guédé references these noblemen and women by their interminably changing titles, and it’s exertion to match person with persona.

The book does have its worthwhile spots, however, beginning with Guédé’s horrific depiction of the slave trade in the 1700s and the life of Saint-George’s mother, Nanon. Other characters of history with whom Saint-George was an intimate add merit the book, such as the chapter on his acquaintance with Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée, d’Eon de Beaumont—a fellow fencer and a spy for Louis XV. Disguised as a woman, Eon established a Franco-Russian alliance with the Czarina Elizabeth in 1755 as a conflict was brewing with England, when others sent abroad with the task were thrown into the dungeon. Saint-George would later write his opera, The Girl-Boy.

In the end, though exhausted and mildly befuddled, one does get a sense of Saint-George, though mainly via his connections with others who left their marks on history. But sadly, Saint-George’s perfection remains unattainable.

Rich, L. E. (2004, January 2). The ‘Black Mozart.’ [Review of the book Monsieur de Saint-George: Virtuoso, Swordsman, Revolutionary: A Legendary Life Rediscovered by Alain Guede.] Rocky Mountain News.

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