Black History: Special Delivery!!
Joseph Bologne (1745 – 1799) was known as “The Black Mozart”. A violinist and classical music composer, Bologne is recognized as one of the first classical composers of African descent. He also played the harpsichord. Bologne was the son of a wealthy French planter and an enslaved African woman on a Caribbean plantation in Guadelupe. He was sent to Paris as a teen to be educated and graduated from Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation (fencing and horsemanship). He later became an officer in the king’s bodyguard where he was given the title “Chevalier de Saint-Georges”.
In addition to being a talented musician, Bologne was also a champion fencer. He also served as a Colonel during the French Revolution commanding the first unit of black soldiers in European history in 1794. One thousand black volunteer soldiers were under his command. Despite their success and bravery, the military unit was pressured to disband due to its racial composition. In addition to his military service, Bologne interacted with leading politicians and abolitionists and advocated for the abolishment of slavery. He was also a Free Mason
Mozart may have been intimidated by Bologne’s success; so much so, that there is speculation that Bologne was the inspiration for the villain in Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. It is fairly certain that the two would have interacted with one another when Mozart was living in Paris. When Mozart arrived in Paris, he would have been in his 20’s while Bologne would have been in his early 30’s. At that time, Bologne was a celebrated musician and composer with celebrity status. Mozart, on the other hand, was not as well known. A newcomer to Paris, he was desperately trying to launch his career but was finding it very difficult to do so.
Bologne was the leader of the renowned Le Concert des Amateurs orchestra; while Mozart’s music was not being recognized widely. Though his talent was undeniable, his race was a factor in his withdrawing from the opportunity to lead the prestigious Paris Opera when some of its leading performers refused to work for a “mulatto”. To avoid embarrassing the queen, Bologne withdrew his name from consideration.
Following his military service, Bologne was imprisoned for 11 months during which time he faced the possibility of execution. After his release, he went into semi-retirement due to health challenges. He continued to compose and play until his death at age 53.