As seen in The Times 10.3.23

Neil Fisher

Joseph Bologne was a violinist, composer, fencer and friend of Marie Antoinette. Now his untold story is being uncovered by a British star

Braimah Kanneh-Mason is the second oldest of the Kanneh-Masons, the prodigious clan from Nottingham who, as they grow up, gradually seem to be hoovering up most of the plum gigs in British musical life. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and a former touring member of the pop band Clean Bandit, the 25-year-old violinist brother of Sheku (cellist), Isata (pianist) and four other string or piano-playing siblings knows all about high achievers. Yet he found it “mind-boggling” when he came upon the little-known story of the multitalented Joseph Bologne, also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges and — although we’ll come to that tricky label — sometimes styled as “the Black Mozart”.

Bologne, who was born in 1745 in the Caribbean and died in France in 1799, was not just a virtuoso violinist. He was a celebrated composer with the ear of Marie Antoinette, a renowned fencer and an antislavery campaigner. Favoured by the French royal family — despite the barriers of his race — he was made a gendarme du roi (officer of the king’s bodyguard) in 1766, granting him the use of the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges. During the French Revolution Bologne led an (all-black) regiment to defend the new, fragile republic from its monarchist enemies. When the revolutionaries turned on him he was jailed and tortured. And he had an illegitimate child with a French aristocrat, a baby who disappeared in mysterious circumstances.

“It was almost like reading the biography of a superhero,” Kanneh-Mason says of when he first came upon Bologne’s story. “He’s like a fictional character. Not just the virtuoso element, being the violinist and composer, but the athletic thing as well — the champion fencer. Being associated with the queen of France. Leading battalions in the revolution. All of that was very inspiring.”

Kanneh-Mason was particularly piqued by the story of Bologne because this superhero was born in Guadeloupe, the son of a plantation owner and his wife’s enslaved servant. Kanneh-Mason has Caribbean roots through his father, Stuart, whose parents came from Antigua. The Kanneh-Mason family often returns to the island and works with musical groups there. In Guadeloupe there are still descendants of Bologne, and a yearly festival celebrates the island’s great musical son.

Since his first musical encounter with one of Bologne’s works (he played some of them with Chineke! orchestra), Kanneh-Mason has dug deep into his scores. “I’ve played the string quartets and the violin concertos, although I’ve never performed them publicly. And the violin sonata. It has filled me with a lot of joy — and disbelief. I thought, ‘OK, so how has this person not come to light?’”

Gradually the chevalier’s story — and his music — is being uncovered. Chineke! has performed a clutch of his works, Lenny Henry explored Bologne’s story in a recent BBC series on black composers, and next month a glossy biopic is released in the US, Chevalier (the UK release is slated for June). But before that big Hollywood number Kanneh-Mason will get his chance to let Bologne’s music sing in The Chevalier, a hybrid theatre concert presented by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and performed this month at Snape in Suffolk and then in St Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

Scripted by the writer and composer Bill Barclay, the piece embodies Bologne through two men: Kanneh-Mason on the music side and the actor Chukwudi Iwuji portraying him in speech. “That’s intended to be a great compliment to Joseph Bologne,” Barclay says. “That there just isn’t one person on the planet who can be him.”

I meet Barclay and Kanneh-Mason in the crypt of St Martin in the Fields, a place you can easily imagine a periwigged baroque ensemble zipping their way through Bologne’s music. Barclay, a former director of music at Shakespeare’s Globe, could have written a three-act epic on the life of Bologne (indeed, there is a longer version without musical extracts) but this play picks up on one of the juiciest moments in his life. It’s 1778 and the 32-year-old Bologne is a confidant of the young, inexperienced (and as yet childless) Marie Antoinette. His avant-garde music is celebrated by, among others, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, author of Dangerous Liaisons. And then an eccentric Austrian chap called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart crashes on his chaise longue and they become flatmates for two and a half months. They go drinking, they go carousing and they head off to the theatre to see a controversial new play by Beaumarchais called The Marriage of Figaro.

What emerges in what is essentially a three-hander (Laclos is the narrator) is not the gospel truth, but it is grounded in it. Mozart and Bologne did live together that year. Marie Antoinette did long publicly champion Bologne and would have remembered Mozart as the little boy who performed for her in the royal court of Vienna. Barclay sees the trio, two composers and a queen, as a group of “three immigrants who cannot be accepted by the status quo”. Was Bologne a possible lover of Marie Antoinette? “I think they become friends. They share the experience of having never been fully accepted by Paris. Of course they flirt. But it’s about something deeper.”

Barclay accepts that he has dragged his chevalier from the 18th century into the 21st in some respects, using his hero as a poster boy. “I use my art to advance my cause,” Bologne tells Mozart, trying to get the younger, wilder man to think about being a force for social justice — and to depart from his childhood virtuosity by writing music that responds to deeper emotions. “Yes, it’s about artist activism,” Barclay says. “Qualities that we can use now.”

That would have little impact, however, if Bologne’s own music was not as forceful as his personality. Kanneh-Mason insists it is. “I think the difference between a good composer and a great composer is basically how much emotion you feel from it. The nuance of character. With Bologne you have charm, personality.” And you can hear the swordsmanship. “When you imagine him fencing, you can compare that with the nimbleness, the dexterity, the daring he has on the violin as well.” Kanneh-Mason names the A major concerto, Op 5 No 2, as a favourite. “It’s really difficult to play it, but it has all the things I really love about the composer to the max — that really sonorous, expressive quality, but also the charisma. It always sparkles.”

Bologne’s rise through the ranks of prerevolutionary France was remarkable and so was the exalted company he kept. Even Marie Antoinette, however, couldn’t protect Bologne from his enemies. In 1776 Bologne was proposed as the next music director of the Paris Opera, arguably the most important musical position in the country. Yet three of the star female singers of the company protested directly to the queen that “their honour and delicate conscience could never allow them to submit to the orders of a mulatto”. Later in 1779 there was an organised hit on Bologne when he was assaulted by six men in Paris.

Barclay says that after the revolution the new government reneged on a promise to Bologne that slavery would be outlawed in the new regime. “And I think he was so disgusted by that, it meant he was not 100 per cent empathetic with the cause of the revolutionaries.” It triggered a rift with his republican allies that caused Bologne to be jailed. As for Bologne’s illegitimate child, the baby was “disappeared”, Barclay says — believed to have been murdered on the orders of the man Bologne had cuckolded, the Marquis of Montalembert.

Bologne never quite disappeared from history. There was a revival of interest in the 19th century and biographies were written. It was, however, the music that tended to get lost. The label “the Black Mozart”, inspired by the two composers’ association in Paris, has clung on, to Barclay and Kanneh-Mason’s discomfort. “It’s belittling,” the violinist says, “because it reduces him to, you know, a black version of this person. Actually the chevalier preceded Mozart. It’s nicer to call him by his name rather than some sort of mirror of Mozart.”

The pairing of the two, however, has lingered, partly because Mozart now stands accused of stealing from him — which would suggest Mozart was more the “white Bologne” than the other way round. In 2021 it was reported in The Sunday Times that Bologne’s music would be included in a revamp of the music curriculum, and that Mozart’s “poaching” of themes from Bologne in his own Symphonie Concertante would be part of that course. As Bologne’s stock rises, so has the loaded idea that Mozart stole from his rival and so contributed to Bologne’s obscurity.

It’s an accusation that both Barclay and Kanneh-Mason refute. “There’s no theft here, there’s artists learning from each other,” Barclay says. “We don’t have to make it a ‘wrong thing’, nor a race thing, or anything else.” Braimah chips in: “I completely agree. When you see [musical] quotes from other pieces like this, it’s normally a compliment. It’s rarely a case of ‘I’m going to take this for myself’.” Barclay is particularly sensitive to this point because of how easily the story of Bologne can be politicised in the age of the culture wars. “This is not a piece about identity politics. It’s about the glory of surveying the man’s music and his story together.”

Kanneh-Mason, too, is aware of the dangers of setting agendas ahead of making great art. Getting a wider range of composers heard in concert halls has been one of the few pleasant by-products of the pandemic, he argues. “It forced organisations to be more experimental in programming. But I think, often in arts and music, we see a sort of rushed process in which people will say, ‘Oh, I need a composer that ticks this box.’ They don’t spend the same time choosing a programme as they would if it were a piece of music by a white composer.”

He has no complaints, however, about giving maximum airtime to the music of Bologne. And when I suggest that The Chevalier is a chance not just to give the composer a spotlight, but also for “Sheku’s older brother” to come into it, he smilingly resists. “It’s a huge opportunity for me. But the biggest responsibility I feel is for so many people who will be hearing Bologne for the first time. They’ll be thinking, ‘OK, who’s this?’ That’s my focus.”

The Chevalier is on March 19 at Snape Maltings, Suffolk and March 21 in St Martin in the Fields, London WC2 ( Chevalier is in cinemas from June 9