One of the most celebrated musical figures of the 18th century, Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799), was a renaissance man of African-French heritage. He was an anomaly in his time: a black virtuoso in a sea of white classical musicians and composers.
Born in Guadeloupe, the son of a wealthy planter and his African slave, the accomplished violinist composed six operas as well as instrumental music, vocal pieces, and symphonic and chamber music works, ascending to the post of conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris. Bologne was also a champion fencer and, during the French Revolution, a colonel in the republican Légion Saint-Georges, said to be the first all-black regiment in Europe.
Though acknowledged as the first classical composer of African ancestry, he remains relatively obscure in the United States, a victim of bigotry and the fate of many a gifted artist—to be renowned in their era but diminished by history.
On October 20, Bologne’s sole surviving opera, The Anonymous Lover, will be performed in its entirety for the first time in America at the fourth annual Colour of Music Festival (COMF), a five-day (October 19–23) showcase that is billed as the world’s largest music festival featuring black classical musicians and is devoted to a history encompassing all races.
This year’s theme: All Things French. With the Masterworks series scheduled for the new Gaillard Center, chamber music at the Gibbes Museum of Art, and piano and vocal recitals at St. Stephens Episcopal Church, the festival presents musicians from the United States, Canada, Russia, the Caribbean, South America, Europe and Africa, again under the guidance of Orchestral Music Director Marlon Daniels.
Bologne’s works, like those of many other classically trained black composers, have been overlooked by generations of audiences and musicologists, says Lee Pringle, festival founder and artistic director.
“Few rival him for productivity and range, which is why many refer him to him as the black Mozart; he was able to compose so much in so short a period of time. Yet unlike Canada and other countries more connected to the European way of life, people here have not been as appreciative of his work. Probably 80 percent of black musicans who come to COMF say they didn’t know of him before seeing his story on the internet.”
Festival organizers estimate that while there are thousands of classical performers and composers of African descent, opportunities to appear on the concert stages of major American orchestras are rare.
“I don’t think the classical music world consciously omits black classical musicians. It’s that orchestral ways of producing concerts are so complicated, they get personnel that do not have relationships with black professional musicians and are unlikely to hire musicians outside their circle. I wanted to give these musicians the opportunity to play not only the works of white European composers at COMF, but black composers as well.”
The Colour of Music Festival, created in part to address this problem, has surpassed the expectations of its founder, who also established the Charleston Symphony Gospel Choir, the Charleston Spiritual Ensemble and the Charleston Spiritual Ensemble Chorale.
“Our festival occupies a unique place and has a unique focus, which extends to our outreach program in local schools,” says Pringle, whose goals for COMF include for it to be the leading international repository for researching the work of black composers. “I had no idea how the white and black communities would embrace the idea of experiencing classical music written by black composers and played by black musicians. But the support has been overwhelming.” For a complete schedule of events and ticket information, visit colourofmusic.org.
Bill Thompson is the author of Art and Craft: 30 Years on the Literary Beat.