Racism then and now: a musical insight

In the middle of the 18th century, when the Atlantic slave trade was at its height, there was a then famous black composer working in France. Even those of you who are lovers of classical music have probably heard of him. His name was Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was a violinist, although that was only one of his talents. Others included athlete, military commander, huntsman and swordsman. He wrote several violin concertos for his own playing, and the slow movement of one of them can be heard here:

I think one might be forgiven for thinking it was a lost work by Mozart or Haydn. It seems extraordinary that a composer of such talent is today almost totally forgotten.

There’s a strange paradox here. When Saint-Georges was alive, it was a time that we like to think was one in which black people were very much worse off than they are now. It would be idle to pretend that wasn’t the case, and yet here we have a black man operating at the highest levels of the French aristocracy in a way that would perhaps cause comment even in 21st century England. Our aristocracy is not known for its multi-cultural plurality. Certainly it seems hardly likely that black people were seen as “animals” rather than “human”, as is widely supposed to have been a prevalent view during the slave trade, and yet for a black man to be tolerated in the highest echelons of society.

Of course, it must be remembered that musicians in the 18th century were nothing more than fancy servants, so not too much should be read into Saint-Georges’ social position. Indeed, and perhaps ironically, he was thrown into destitution after the revolution of 1789 since he was seen as a lackey of the hated aristocrats. But many composers died in destitution, Mozart being a prime example, and yet their reputations have survived and even perhaps been enhanced as a result of the romantic notion of the tortured artist. What has prevented Saint-Georges from being better known?

My suspicion is that his obscurity is a result of the racism that dominated Europe and the Americas after the end of the slave trade, rather than of the racism that existed during his lifetime. Be that as it may, Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is yet another example of black people’s contribution to the arts and society having been effectively expunged in our modern consciousness. If anyone ever asks you if there have been black composers of classical music before the mid-20th century, you will now be able to say, “Yes”, even if you might have said, “No” yesterday!


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