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  • Writer's pictureK.E. Berr

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint Georges

A Man to Rival Mozart

Note: Due to the loss of information, many facts about Saint-Georges differ. Everything from his date of birth, to his place of birth, and even his name differ from source to source. When so much information has been lost, there will always be blank spaces. The information presented here is from several different sources. For the most part, they agree on the facts. These facts have been put together into a somewhat cohesive timeline.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a black man who, through his skill at fencing and music, was able to become a top member of high society in pre-revolutionary era France. Throughout his life, he faced multiple setbacks. But despite this, he became one of the most successful composers and conductors in France, and possibly one of the best fencers of all time.

Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges, circa 1787-1789.

Early Life

On Christmas Day of 1745, Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges was born under French rule on the island of Guadeloupe. His mother was a 17-year-old slave named Anne, though she had been nicknamed Nanon. In French, nanon means grace, and grace was something that had always been used to describe Nanon. This could have been what attracted Saint-Georges's father, Georges Bologne de Saint-Georges.

Georges was already a married man when he came to Guadeloupe in the mid-1700s. In France, Georges had been a part of King Louis XV's inner circle, until he made to decision to become a plantation owner on the small island. Upon meeting the young Nanon, Georges took her in not only to work on his plantation but to serve as his mistress. During this period, it was not necessarily uncommon for wealthy Frenchmen to take a mistress. It should also be noted that for Nanon, she would not have had much of a choice in the matter.

Despite the odd situation he had been born into, Saint-Georges still seemingly had a happy childhood. Growing up, both he and his mother were allowed to live in the same luxury as his father's legitimate family, Georges's wife and daughter. It seems that Georges loved his son and wanted to give him the best life that he could.

It was obvious, though, that life would not always be easy for Saint-Georges. Saint-Georges's dark skin caused him to stand out, at least among the upper classes. However, his name did carry some weight in high society. He had been given his father's family name, which not only shows that Georges claimed his son but that he had also attempted to make life easier for him. Georges would have known that with the name of Saint-Georges, his son could get further in life. A good name would also help considering that, because Saint-Georges was illegitimate, he would not be allowed to take his father's title or inherit anything from him.

In 1747, just over a week before Saint-Georges's second birthday, a drunken Georges got into an argument with another drunken man. This led to a fencing duel breaking out between the two. Georges would fatally wound the man, and he would die several days later.

Georges was now a murderer and found himself a fugitive of Guadeloupe law. If he was caught, he would most definitely be charged, imprisoned and executed, and his family would be destitute. Georges's only option was to flee the island. Within the month, Georges had left for France. His family had to stay behind, and for a while, it was unclear when or if they would be able to follow. This changed when all of their possessions were seized, leaving the family with only one option: to follow Georges to France.

By this time, Georges had been able to persuade the king to pardon him, which technically made him an innocent man. Georges still wanted to remain in Paris, though. He knew that France would not only present his son with better opportunities but he also believed that in France, the racist attitudes of the time would be much more hidden.

On September 1, 1748, the young Saint-Georges, along with Nanon, his half-sister and Georges's wife, Elisabeth Merican, boarded a ship to France. They arrived in Paris in early January of 1749 and would settle down in the upscale Saint-Germain district.

An interpretation of Saint-Georges as a young boy for the cover of 'Before There Was Mozart'.

Now living together again in France, Georges began to teach his son the skills that would help him to gain traction among the upper classes. He first began by teaching him how to read music and play the harpsichord. He also taught him to fence, something Georges himself was quite accomplished in.

Georges soon saw, though, that Saint-Georges was learning faster than he could teach. In order to further his education, it was decided that Saint-Georges would be sent away for schooling. In August of 1754, when Saint-Georges was around nine years old, Merican took Saint-Georges to Bordeaux, where he would attend a boarding school that catered to the boys of affluent French families. He attended this school for two years before his father brought him back to Paris. At only 13 years old, Saint-Georges was already showing great skill in fencing, so much so that he could easily take on upperclassmen. It was decided that because of this, he should be focused specifically on the craft. So, he was sent to another boarding school, Le Académie Royale Polytechnique des Armes et de L'Equitation. It was run by Nicolas Texier de La Boëssière, a famed and accomplished swordsman. The school was for the elite and was full of future aristocrats and noblemen. Here, he studied math, history, dance, and equestrianism. However, he was the most focused on his classes in music in fencing. Quickly, he mastered the harpsichord before turning his attention to the violin in 1758. He first studied the instrument under Jean-Marie LeClair, a founding violinist in the French music scene. He also began to study composition under François-Joseph Gossec. Very quickly, Saint-Georges took to both the instrument and composing.

Saint-Georges excelled at music during this time, but fencing was still his main focus. Because of his talent as a swordsman, Saint-Georges' usual duelling partner was La Boëssière's own son. He would go on to write about Saint-Georges, calling him "...the most extraordinary man of arms ever seen." La Boëssière would later explain further, saying, "At 15 [Saint-Georges's] progress was so rapid, that he was already beating the best swordsman, and at 17 he developed the greatest speed imaginable." His schoolmates would even nickname him "the God of Arms".

Outside of his classes, too, Saint-Georges was popular. He was an appealing young man, both mentally and physically. Not only was he smart and known to be good-natured, but he was also known to carry himself with confidence that drew people to him. Saint-Georges was described as tall, handsome, with a unique look that would have been foreign to many other students. According to fencer Henry Angelo, a memoirist and friend of Saint-Georges, "[Saint-Georges] combined in his person his mother's grace and good looks and his father's vigor and assurance."

Saint-Georges, aged around 22. On his lapel he wears three roses, a masonic symbol. He would be a lifelong member of the Masons.

This combined with his talent would help his rise in the high society of France. Though, by the time Saint-Georges had graduated in the early 1760s, he had already begun to make a name for himself.

Early Career

Almost as soon as Saint-Georges had graduated, he had taken a position serving under the king. He served as an officer of the king's bodyguard, a high honour that earned him his title of Chevalier. At this time, he was only 19.

In 1766, famous fencer Giuseppe Gianfoldoni heard of Saint-Georges' talent and challenged him to a duel. Gianfoldoni would end up defeating Saint-Georges, becoming the first to do so in Saint-Georges' short career. But, it was not necessarily a loss for Saint-Georges. Gianfoldoni was a formidable opponent for the young man to take on, and when the duel was over, Gianfoldoni told Saint-Georges that he would soon be the best fencer on the European continent.

Saint-Georges' father had always been a great supporter of music, which was one of the reasons that Saint-Georges had taken his own interest in it. In 1768, he would finish taken lessons under his violin and composition teachers. By the time he finished, his teachers both felt that he had long exceeded his need for them.

A page from Saint-Georges' 'Deux Concerto'.

While still in school, Saint-Georges had begun to play publicly for small circles of nobility and had already earned praise from some of the musical greats of the time. By age 24, in 1769, Gossec personally appointed Saint-Georges to first violin in his orchestra, the Concert des Amateurs. He was a standout in the group, so much so that three years later, in 1772, Saint-Georges made his debut as a soloist. He made his debut playing an original piece, Op. 2 Violin Concerto. Upon his debut, Saint-Georges astounded audiences and became known for his ability to write passionate music and to convey that intense feeling through his playing.

Not only that, but his music had an unheard quality. His compositions were similar to what Austrian composers were producing, though most famed Austrian composers had yet to make their debut in France. In comparison to more simplistic French compositions, Austrian compositions were more erratic and complex. Between 1769 and 1772, Saint-Georges wrote at least one other violin concerto and six string concertos.

In 1773, Saint-Georges was given a better opportunity than he could have ever hoped after Gossec left as conductor of the Concert des Amateurs. This left an open position that Saint-Georges soon took over. At this time, conducting was done not by standing at the front of the orchestra and waving one's arms, but by the conductor playing either first violin or harpsichord and having the other musicians follow. As conductor, Saint-Georges would produce eight more violin concertos and two symphonies concertantes.

When Georges passed away in 1774, Saint-Georges was left reliant on the income he earned as a musician. As expected, he had been passed over for any inheritance and everything had instead gone to his half-sister. His success was proven, though, and he was quickly becoming a wealthy man.

A sketch of Saint-Georges kissing a noble lady's hand.

Working His Way Up in the Court

During his life, Saint-Georges would earn many nicknames. In many gossip circles, though, he was known by 'Le Don Juan Noir'. Saint-Georges apparently had a reputation as a thorn in many husband's sides. It is rumoured that he picked up many wives of the noblemen he rubbed elbows with both as a musician and as a chevalier. Rumours of affairs make sense in the life of Saint-Georges, it is likely that he wanted what many other men had; a wife and children. But, due to his mixed-race status, he could not marry. Affairs were really all he could ever have.

Although, at least one significant romantic relationship seems to have taken place in Saint-Georges' life. The law was not the only thing that stopped them from marrying though. The woman he was seeing also happened to be married to a general. That could not stop them from seeing each other, though, and so they continued to meet.

At some point, she became pregnant. When she gave birth to a son, Saint-Georges was ecstatic, as he believed the son to be his. To him, it did not matter that the baby had been born out of wedlock or that he would be mixed-race in a world that did not favour people of colour. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to give the baby the same upbringing Saint-Georges had had and now that he had found success, he was prepared to take care of the baby.

However, when the woman's husband realized that it probably was not his son, he became upset and grew to resent the baby. Angered, the general ordered for the wet nurse to stop feeding the baby. His son died before Saint-Georges ever got a chance to raise him.

Saint-Georges was hit by more devastation after he earned a new position in 1775. That was when he earned an even more prestigious position as Director of the Opéra. Ultimately, he was never able to serve in this post after several opera singers petitioned to the queen to have his position revoked. Saint-Georges friend, Baron von Grimm, wrote of this event, "The artistes nevertheless at once addressed a petition to the queen to beg Her Majesty that their honour and delicacy of their conscience made it impossible for them to be subjected to the orders of a mulatto." Mulatto is a derogatory term, typically used against biracial people. It is a slur that would follow Saint-Georges for most of his life.

For a long time after, no one would replace Saint-Georges in the job. He had been the only candidate for the position. He had not simply been passed up for the job so that a white man could take his place. He had been removed solely based on his complexion, and he was rightfully angry.

Racism and discrimination had been something he faced his entire life, but for it to be so blatant was hard to take. Often, Saint-Georges had been able to escape it, whether it was because of his wealth, charm, or some other factor, but now it was very obviously targeting him. It was a reminder to Saint-Georges of the intense, constant racism buried just under the surface of Parisian high society.

Saint-Georges was determined to prove himself, though. A string of devastations could not be what brought him down. He was still a rising star in France, and word of him had begun to spread across Europe and even as far as America.

More importantly, though, word of him had reached the recently crowned King Louis XVI. Saint-Georges was glad to have a way into the royal court. He had had an anti-slavery stance throughout his life, and he hoped that he could make a change when he heard that Louis XVI had similar views.

An engraving of Saint-Georges depicted with a violin and sheet of music behind him and a sabre in hand.

Saint-Georges was brought to the palace, where he would occasionally play concerts for the royal court. In court, though, Saint-Georges found that it was the king's young wife who seemed to take the most interest in him. Marie Antoinette was fascinated with the mysterious violinist and insisted that she take music lessons from him. Saint-Georges was happy to oblige to anything the king and queen wanted, it would give him instant success and some of the most important connections in the country. He gave the queen daily lessons, and the two formed a close relationship. So close that it frequently caused rumours to spread around the court.

In 1777, Saint-Georges composed his first opera, Ernestine. Its run only lasted a single night, and the lyrics of the show were panned by critics. Saint-Georges, who only wrote the music, earned praise, but it was far from enough to save the show.

The opera had been performed in a theatre owned by the Duke of Orleans, and this lead to the duke and Saint-Georges becoming good friends. The duke even put Saint-Georges in charge of his hunting retinue at Le Raincy, a rich suburb in Paris. Another close ally in a position of nobility also gave Saint-Georges another chance to further his plan to abolish slavery.

One night in 1779, Saint-Georges was walking with a friend along the Boulevard du Temple when they were attacked by several men. They were outnumbered, it was two men against eight or ten. However, Saint-Georges' skill at fencing did not fail him, and he was able to successfully fight off the men. Gossip at the time suspected that the attackers were sent from the Court in Versailles. It is also possible that the attackers were sent by a husband angry with either Saint-Georges or his friend. Either way, it meant that Saint-Georges must have been important if someone felt he needed to be scared away. Any investigation into the attack was quickly ended, and no arrests would be made.

A second opera from Saint-Georges came in 1780. L'Amant Anonyme, or The Anonymous Lover, was written and composed by Saint-Georges. It is believed that a real-life relationship -- likely his relationship with the general's wife -- inspired it. In the opera, the male lead, Valcour, is in love with the female lead, Léontine. However, he is too afraid to tell her. Léontine does not love Valcour, but she finds him interesting. While Valcour spends his time trying to woo Léontine, their friend Ophemon becomes an anonymous force that tries to bring them together. Léontine eventually falls in love with Valcour and they end the opera together and happy. The opera premiered in 1780 at the opera house of Mme. de Montesson and earned a lot of praise upon its debut. The queen was likely even in attendance for its premiere; in the time that Saint-Georges served as her music teacher, the queen would attend performances of all of Saint-Georges's original work. L'Amant Anonyme remains Saint-Georges's most famous opera, if not his most famous composition.

Throughout this, Saint-Georges had continued to perform with the Concert des Amateurs. When they began to suffer from financial issues in 1781, they were not able to survive, and they disbanded later that year. By this point, though, Saint-Georges had made a name for himself far beyond the group that had given him his first opportunities.

Rivalry with Mozart

Around this time another composer had entered the scene. This composer was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and he had become jealous of Saint-Georges. He only knew of the man from rumours and did not meet the man behind them until after he was taken into the care of a noble in the French court.

Saint-Georges was everything Mozart was not. He was tall, handsome, charming, had control of one of the best orchestras in France and played often for Marie Antoinette herself. Mozart, on the other hand, struggled just to be noticed. At the time, since Saint-Georges gave the queen music lessons, he held one of the most prestigious jobs in the court. Not only that, but he had become her favourite composer. That was more than enough to endure his success. In Mozart's opinion, though, this was not success that Saint-Georges deserved. Mozart was Austrian, so Saint-Georges's compositions had been inspired by the music that Mozart had been brought up learning, and he likely felt he had some sort of claim to the style. Mozart had also been a prodigy who had already played for the queen as a young boy. Saint-Georges success was what Mozart felt he should be experiencing. What Saint-Georges thought of the young man is unclear.

Obviously, Mozart would eventually achieve success. But he never forgot about Saint-Georges. When he wrote The Magic Flute, he included a character that has been speculated to be based on Saint-Georges. The character, Monostatos, is the lustful sidekick of the evil queen. He is a devious character and was originally portrayed as a moor, complete with multiple racist stereotypes. Mozart would even allegedly copy one of Saint-Georges's violin concertos when composing this piece. Unfortunately for Saint-Georges, Mozart would end up having the last laugh.

Later Music Career

Saint-Joseph had been a freemason for a large part of his life, making him one of the first black masons. He was also one of the first to be as accomplished as he was, eventually rising to the 33rd degree. The lodge he belonged to was the Grand Orient of France. In 1781, his connection to the lodge would prove useful when he began a new orchestra. The masons sponsored him and he was able to found Le Concert de la Loge Olympique. Most of the members were masons, and Saint-Georges would once again serve as both the composer and conductor. They were regarded as an immensely talented group and were the orchestra that Mozart encountered in the royal palace, where they often played.

For several years, Saint-Georges would continue on with this orchestra. In 1787, he wrote his third opera, La Fille-Garçon. He quickly followed it with a children's opera, Aline et Dupré ou le Marchand de Marrons. Both were highly praised and highly profitable. However, negative attention soon dampened the productions, although this was due to growing racial tensions. As the revolution grew nearer, racism had slowly moved from private discussions to open actions.

Near the end of 1781, Saint-Georges had been asked to perform the first of Franz Joseph Haydn's six symphonies. Considering that Haydn was considered to be Europes best composer at the time, this was a very prestigious honour. The queen would even attend Saint-Georges's performances of Nos. 82-87. No. 85 was even been dubbed "The Queen" because it was her favourite.

A painting of the fencing match between Saint-Georges and the Chevalier d'Eon.

In April of 1787, the Prince of Wales arranged a fencing exhibition specifically for Saint-Georges. He had heard of his skills and was eager to see it himself. Saint-Georges was slightly out of practice after all this time. Two years previous, in 1785, Saint-Georges had broken his Achilles tendon and had lost some of his agility. Still, he was never one to back down from a fight.

The match was between the nearly 42-year-old Saint-Georges and the 59-year-old Chevalier d'Eon, a male spy who would disguise himself as a woman, and even wore his disguise during the match. This lead everyone to believe that it was a woman facing off against Saint-Georges. Both were known to be skilled fencers, though, and were considered equals during the fight. Saint-Georges took one hit during the match but ultimately won.

Before returning to France, Saint-Georges took notice of the growing anti-slavery movement in England. He saw that it was finally gaining steam, so as soon as Saint-Georges returned to France he helped to found his own anti-slavery group, Société des amis des noirs. Over the next few years, Saint-Georges would spend a lot of time travelling between France and England in order to grow the anti-slavery movement. In France, he was the luxurious composer, and in England, he was an outspoken advocate who often met with politicians behind the movement. Obviously, he angered many supporters of slavery.

Saint-George depicted punching George Hanger. Behind him stands the prince and d'Eon. This cartoon is meant to parody the assassination attempt against Saint-Georges while noting his anti-slavery stance.

In 1790, Saint-Georges was spending time in London. He was walking alone to one of his performances one night when he was attacked by a man with a pistol. Saint-Georges, armed with only his violin and a cane, was able to fight him off. As soon as he had stopped the man, another four men appeared. He was able to fight them off. He would later find out that his attackers were angered slave traders.

Slavery in France would lifted in 1794, and Saint-Georges would live to see this change. One can only imagine the joy he felt upon finding out, and it is likely that his own influence had something to do with abolishment.

French Revolution

In 1789, the French Revolution broke out. Le Concert de la Loge Olympique was dissolved shortly after, and many of its members went to serve in the war. Saint-Georges had already moved out of Paris at the outbreak of the revolution and was living in Lille. Why exactly he left Paris is unclear, whether it was due to his involvement in the anti-slavery movement that called for him outside of the city or if it was in order to distance himself from the monarchy he had long been associated with.

Briefly, Saint-Georges went on tour through the north of France with his friend Lamothe, the actress Louise Fusil and a group of horn players. After this, he decided that music could no longer support him.

The ideology of the revolution spoke to Saint-Georges, though. He embraced the idea that each man could be free and equal. He joined the national guard the same year the revolution began. By 1790, he had been promoted to Captain.

Other leaders were wary of him, due to his close ties with the overthrown royalty and his own noble status. In an effort to stop any misconceptions, he shortened his name, dropping the 'Chevalier' and changing it to simply Joseph Bologne Georges. He would sign his name simply as 'Monsieur Georges'.

He did not fully give up music, however. He often arranged for miniature concerts while he and his men were stationed in Lille. He often performed at these concerts and with the help of a local actor, he was even able to compose another opera, Guillame-Tout-Couer ou les Amis de Village. With this, he lightened the mood in-between moments of fencing demonstrations, when he hoped to help prepare his men better for battle.

However, he was required to enlist and serve in active duty. He was sent away from Lille and would serve as an aide-de-camp for two generals in June of 1791, but was reassigned by September.

Saint-Georges depicted triumphant after a fencing match, 1787.

After this, he would be promoted to colonel in a unit led by Julien Raimond of Saint Dominique. Raimond himself was a man of colour. In fact, the whole unit (which contained about 800 infantry and 200 cavalry personnel) was made up of men of colour. Saint-Georges would serve closely and become friends with Alexandre Dumas, the father of the author. Similar to Saint-Georges, Dumas had also been the son of a French aristocrat and a slave.

For most of the war, the unit had not been allowed to fight, but shortly after the arrival of Saint-Georges, they were approved to be in battle. This would prove useful as Austria soon joined the war, siding with the monarchy. They quickly invaded Lille, where Saint-Georges had returned to. Being a colonel, Saint-Georges was not required to serve on the front lines, but he was there when the Austrians arrived. He was prepared to fight alongside his men. Quickly, the Austrians were forced out of Lille, and Saint-Georges was given credit for the victory.

Saint-Georges would be credited with another important victory during the war after he was responsible for stopping the Treason of Dumouriez. This had been a plan to regain France for the monarchy. General Dumouriez, the man behind the plan, had secretly joined with Austria and planned to attempt again to capture Lille. After they gained control of the city, they would use it as a base to crown Louis XVII as the new ruler of France.

Dumouriez sent his ally General Miaczynski to Lille, along with 4000 men. Upon his arrival, Miaczynski revealed the plan to both Saint-Georges and Dumas. Now armed with the knowledge, they had to quickly devise a plan to counter the overthrow. Saint-Georges told Miaczynski that when he arrived to overthrow the city, they would put up no resistance. Miazynski believed him, so when he arrived to capture Lille, he came with only a small troop. This made it easy for Saint-Georges's army to capture both the general and his troops. Miaczynski was sent back to Paris, where he was promptly executed. Dumouriez fled the country as soon as he heard of the failed attack. Without Saint-Georges's intervention, it is possible that France may have returned to the monarchy.

Saint-Georges was hailed as a hero but this did not last long. Saint-Georges's troops had suffered from chronic food and weapons shortages and morale was low. The blame landed on Saint-Georges's shoulders. Even Dumas was among the critics. It resulted in many of Saint-Georges's troops being sent away to solve issues outside of France, such as slave uprisings in the colonies. Saint-Georges was especially vulnerable to criticism, as many were still suspicious of his ties to the monarchy.

It only got worse in November of 1793, when Saint-Georges was arrested. Leading up to his arrest, Saint-Georges had been falsely accused of misusing public funds. Simon Dufresse had been an outspoken detractor of Saint-Georges, and he had written a scandalous report on Saint-Georges in which he made these allegations. On November 4th, 1793, Saint-Georges was taken into custody and imprisoned. He was given no trial.

The political system at the time was complicated, but it worked to Saint-Georges' benefit. Robespierre, a main leader in the revolution and an outspoken advocate of the guillotine, was on the brink of his downfall. For a time, there was a stalling in the use of the guillotine and it at least gave Saint-Georges an opportunity to escape the blade. The Committee of Public Safety also came to Saint-Georges defence. They looked into Saint-George's arrest and decided that it was unjust. It was a lengthy process, but he was eventually released from prison. The amount of time Saint-Georges had to serve is unclear; it lasted anywhere between 10 and 18 months.

Now a free man, Saint-Georges attempted to rejoin the army, but he had no chance of returning to his post. Many of his former soldiers supported his return, but Saint-Georges was rejected and ordered to never associate with any of his men ever again. Not only was he unable to return to the army, but the press and public had largely lost interest in the arts of the upper class, which made it difficult for Saint-Georges to start another orchestra.

Unsure of what to do and where to go, Saint-Georges travelled aimlessly. He left France, and most likely had no intention of ever returning. Records of Saint-Georges become scarce during this time. It is believed that in 1796 he arrived in Saint-Dominique (now Haiti). If he was there during this time, he would have arrived during a civil war, one that was even more devastating and bloody than the war he had seen in France. This war was fought between revolutionaries and forces who believed that slavery should be reintroduced. Saint-Georges may have seen this as an opportunity to help after he had spent so much of his time aiding in the abolishment of slavery. Although, Saint-Georges was tired of war and revolution, and the terror and devastation it brought with it. He returned to France within the year.

When Saint-Georges returned, he tried again to join the army, changing his name to just George and hoping that officials would not recognize him. When this did not work, he sent in a letter, explaining "I have constantly demonstrated my loyalty to the revolution. I have served it since the beginning of the war with a tireless zeal that is undiminished by the persecutions I have suffered. I have no other resource but that of being reinstated in my rank." He was not reinstated.

As indicated by his letter, he was likely desperate during this time. It would have been difficult to support himself financially and many of his former allies had likely been lost. After a life so full of hard work, to live with no aim was not something Saint-Georges was used to.

Final Years

Now without the military as an option for income, Saint-Georges returned to music. In Spring of 1797, he began conducting another orchestra, Le Cercle de l'Harmonie. They were established in the Palais-Royal, the former residence of the Duke of Orleans. Despite Saint-Georges's name change, arrest and disappearance, they still found moderate success. Saint-Georges had never lost his passion for music, and his beautiful playing was still able to attract audiences.

After his release from prison, Saint-Georges was largely destitute, and this did not get better with time. Finding somewhere to live in Paris was difficult, but he eventually find a small apartment in Paris, far from the Saint-Germain district he had grown up in. He lived there alone.

His health had only gotten worse after his time in prison, too. In 1799, Saint-Georges suddenly became ill. He suffered from extreme pain, weakness and fever. His friend, Nicolas Duhamel, found the ill Saint-Georges and took it upon himself to care for him. Saint-Georges soon realized that he was dying. He was right, and on June 10th, 1799, Saint-Georges died, aged 53. At the time of his death, Saint-Georges was virtually penniless, in extreme pain and with few friends left to mourn him.

After his death, Lamothe tried to find any surviving members of Saint-Georges's family. He found that both of Saint-Georges's parents were dead, and his half-sister had little contact with him. He found no one else. Lamothe spoke of his friend's death, saying "This man who was once so sought after...ended with only Duhamel and myself for companions."

Erasure from History

Several newspapers ran stories about Saint-Georges after his death. These obituaries discussed the man with nothing but respect, and several commemorative editions of his music were played in his honour. But he was still largely forgotten in history. This erasure was not something that happened naturally. Saint-Georges was purposely erased from history.

With racist sentiments more public, many wanted the successful black composer to be forgotten. Not only that, but they wanted France and the rest of the world to forget Saint-Georges, too. Once Napoleon Bonaparte came into power, he imposed new restrictions on people of colour across France and its colonies. Slavery was also reinstated, and the slave rebellions that followed became more intense.

Saint-Georges had no voice to speak for him, though. So, he was slowly taken out of the public view. Saint-Georges's music was removed from orchestra repertoires, and his operas were removed from theatres. Even the anti-slavery movement he had dedicated so much time to was completely overturned.

There was a further loss to Saint-Georges's memory when a fire broke out during the July Revolution. Many of the records on Saint-Georges would be lost during this time. Not only records on his life, but his music, too. It is believed now that around half of what he wrote has been lost forever. Records that did survive would be lost for years and for the next 200 years, no one would hear any of Saint-Georges' music.

The plaque marking 'Rue du Chevalier de Saint-George'.

A proper acknowledgment of Saint-Georges legacy would not come until 2001. That year, Saint-Georges was commemorated after a street in Paris was renamed Rue du Chevalier de Saint-George. A plaque was put up that told of Saint-Georges contributions to both the music world and the revolution.

You may even be able to catch a performance of L'Amant Anonyme. It is still performed today. Saint-Georges' music has lived on, even without him.


We know that in total, Saint-Georges wrote at least three sets of string quartets, two symphonies, eight symphonie concertantes, three violin sonatas, 14 violin concertos, a sonata for harp and flute, a bassoon, clarinet, and cello concerto, six violin duets, several songs and six operas.

No matter what one may think of Saint-Georges' accomplishments as a fencer, violinist, composer or abolitionist, it is hard to deny his success. To achieve as much as he did would have been difficult under any standards, but to accomplish it all as a black man shows his strength. Saint-Georges began a path for many other black men and women who followed him in the French arts. While many may have thought it of him, Saint-Georges time and time again proved that he was more than the demeaning labels people forced on him. Saint-Georges is often referred to as 'The Black Mozart', but he deserves to have his own name said. His accomplishments hardly need to be compared to anothers in order to show how successful he was.

Saint-Georges said shortly before his death, "Toward the end of my life, I was particularly devoted to my violin. Never before did I play it so well." Saint-Georges was devoted to music, and it is only fitting that in his final days, he clung to what had given him so much joy in a troubled world.

Further Resouces

  • Monsieur de Saint-George: Virtuoso, Swordsman, Revolutionary: A Legendary Life Rediscovered was the first complete biography to be written about Saint-Georges.

  • Le Mozart Noir: Reviving a Legend is a documentary about Saint-Georges, specifically his music career. The 53 minute special can be found on the directors website, which is here.

  • Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow is a comprehensive biography on Saint-Georges by Gabriel Banat. The author was dedicated to his research, even working to have the information on Rue du Chevalier de Saint-George corrected.

  • features a condensed version of Banat's biography. It can be found here.


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