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Joseph de Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

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Have you ever met someone who seems to be a natural at any task or hobby that they pick up? I'd say that would be a good way to start explaining Chevalier de Saint-Georges; and we'd have to assume he was pretty busy as well. After all, he was a colonel, a conductor, a composer, a virtuoso violinist, a skilled dancer, and a championship fencer, to name a few of his titles. Not too much is known of Saint-Georges' early life or musical training, but we do know that he was born in Guadeloupe to a wealthy planter and his wife's African slave and that he started his fencing lessons at age 13.

By age 17, Saint-Georges was seen as a fencing master and was eventually challenged by a top fencing master named Alexandre Picard. Picard called Saint-Georges out for his young age and race, claiming he would never win. This caused the match to be heavily publicized, with many bets being wagered from Picard supporters and with anti-slavery supporters rallying around Saint-Georges. Saint-Georges won the bout and tasted one of the first of many successes in his life.

Speaking of firsts, Saint-Georges was the first known classical composer of African ancestry and it didn't stop there. He was the conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris as well as a virtuoso violinist... and all without a solid record of where he learned his musical skills. He was lined up to be the next director of the Paris opera, but the musicians couldn't see past this tremendously skilled individual's race and he withdrew his name from consideration. That didn't stop the queen, Marie Antoinette, from inviting him to her private concerts to both enjoy and perform in.

When the French Revolution came into full effect and declared equal rights to all French people, Saint-Georges was deeply moved and became dedicated to the new government. Saint-Georges went to Lille and was the first to sign up for France's new national guard. He was chosen to lead France's first new legion of non-white soldiers and made into colonel, becoming quite popular with his soldiers. Lastly, speaking of his popularity... sadly, many never saw past Chavalier de Saint-Georges' race to see all of his skill and positive deeds in the world... and one of these people was Mozart.

After a disastrous stay in Paris, Mozart found himself living for a short time with a writer and diplomat by the name of Baron von Grimm. Grimm also had someone else staying with him during this time and it was none other than Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who was at this time at the top of his popularity and achievements. Perhaps seeing his happiness and success was a little too much for Mozart, who had just lost his mother and had a rather lousy trip to Paris, claiming the French "know nothing of good music." Maybe this is why some are sure Mozart used Chevalier de Saint-Georges as inspiration for a rather devious character, named Monostatos, in his opera The Magic Flute.

I've always been drawn to the biography of Chevalier de Saint-Georges because he's one of those figures that broke boundaries. An athlete and a musician, starting his life with limited rights and living through the French Revolution to see that change. In Mozart's case, a figure that's so talented and popular that some find themselves envious. We hear Chevalier de Saint-Georges' music and we recognize him as a great composer, but he was so much more. Someone who was ready for the challenge when the world called out "en garde!"