Learning french is difficult. I guess I should say “difficile”. My wife and I are taking this conversational french course and although it is somewhat frustrating, I am however enjoying the process of understanding how those of French descent, transform their thoughts into words, sentences, phrases etc. Living in Ottawa, the capital region of Canada, next to the province of Quebec, the french language and culture is all around us. So to enjoy and take advantage of all that this area has to offer, plus it is certainly advantageous for any career aspirations or advancement, we are enthusiastically pursuing this endeavour. I have also taken to reading french newspapers and magazines as well as watching french programming on t.v.
This morning on a French channel, I caught a bit of a fascinating documentary on the life and music of a Black French composer by the name of Joseph de Bologne, also known as Joseph Boulogne. Born in the French West Indies colony of Guadeloupe, this son of a French aristocrat father and a mother who was a slave of African descent, lived from 1745 to 1799. He moved to France in 1754 and rose to the top of French society through his mastery of fencing and his genius for classical music. His superior skill at fencing earned him the name: “The Chevalier de Saint-Georges”. He was also skilled at using the pistol and was an excellent all round athlete. He mastered both the harpsichord and the violin and his first compositions were performed in Paris in 1772, while in 1773 he became the “Conductor of Le Concert de amateurs”. Early in 1779, Saint-George began performing music with Queen Marie-Antoniette in Versailles, at her request.
During fencing competitions and concerts performances in England, Joseph Boulogne became involved in the anti-slavery movement. He helped to establish a French group called the “Société des amis des noirs”, (Society of the Friends of Black People). When the French revolution broke out in 1789, he joined the National Guard and subsequently became a Colonel of a “coloured” regiment. Its official name was “légion franche de cavalerie des Américains”, but it soon became known to all as “The légion Saint-George”, (Saint-George Legion). The unit performed admirably and bravely defending France and Saint-George became a hero. BUT not for long. Jealousy and his former ties to the aristocracy made him vulnerable to false charges and he was arrested and imprisoned without trail in 1793, but was subsequently cleared of all chrges and released in 1794. In 1797, he returned to Paris to compose music and direct his final orchestra, “Le Cercle de l’Harmonie”, (The Circle of Harmony), a concert organization newly established at the Palais-Royal. Joseph Boulogne died on the 10th of June, 1799.
I had no idea that such a heroic and inspirational figure had existed, and his athletic, as well as his artistic accomplishments during that era, in such an extremely racist society, leaves me in awe! Although today he is referred to as “Le Mozart Noir”, (The Black Mozart), according to classical music historians, it had long been accepted that it was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) who was influenced by the music of Joseph Boulogne! How come I had never learnt about this man!? Composer, Conductor, swordsman, athlete, soldier, anti-slavery advocate. Here is a link to find out more about the life of Joseph de Bologne-the Chevalier de Saint-George, as well as information on others of African descent and their contributions to euro-classical music. Learning French has indeed opened up a new world to me. It excites me! Or should I say: “C’est excitant!”