The Real Story Behind Chevalier, Explained

Close up of Joseph playing the violin
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History can be selective in its retelling, often omitting important aspects. Films, on the other hand, provide a new perspective to showcase overlooked aspects, giving them the recognition they deserve. Such was the case with the historical drama Chevalier, directed by Stephen Williams and based on the true story of accomplished violinist and composer Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr).

In the opening scene of the film, an unknown Bologne stands eye to eye with the musical prowess of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performing a spellbinding act that leaves the audience dumbfounded. It’s surprising that no one has seen, or rather heard, of Bologne’ musical genius before. 

As the film progresses, it becomes apparent who Bologne really is: the illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner who later engages in an illicit love affair with Marie Antoinette (played by Samara Weaving). Despite the racial barriers that were rampant during that time period and on the heels of the French Revolution, he aspires to become the next leader of the Paris Opera, seeking fame and fortune. And he reaches this optimal height by being crowned the title of Chevalier, which in French music refers to male singers who have been knighted for their achievements in the arts.

The Real Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges

Despite his musical prowess, Bologne is often erased from history books — why is that? Though the film fictionalized aspects of the historical reality, the real story is that Bologne was known as one of the earliest European musicians and composers of African descent. In fact, he published numerous string quartets, sonatas, and two symphonies. 

Born in 1745 on the island of Guadeloupe to a wealthy French plantation owner, Georges Bologne and an enslaved 16-year-old maid from Senegal known as Nanon, Bologna moved to France as a child. Bologne likely studied music, mathematics, literature and fencing at La Boëssière Academy, which according to Julia Doe, assistant professor of music at Columbia University in New York, would have provided him an entrance point into the historical French nobility, in part due to his skill with fencing and exposure to the highest circles of courts and capital.

Other historical records indicate that it’s likely that Bologne’s gifts were apparent from an early age before he even moved to France. However, in that time period he would have been condemned to a life of humiliation, and likely violence. It was likely his father’s decision to bring him to France was to give him access to more opportunities and live a better life.

In a deeper dive for the Guardian, Doe also explains, “Pragmatically speaking, his father had to flee Guadeloupe to escape murder charges. More generally, it was not uncommon for members of the French colonial elite to send their children, including mixed race children, to be educated in the metropole.”

In real life, Bologne was a man of great physical strength and had the stature to accompany it; he was five feet six inches, slim and graceful which were important attributes for the poise he needed in fencing and composing. He made his public debut as a soloist with the Concert des Amateurs in 1772, performing his two Violin Concertos Op.2, and three short years later he was considered for the post of artistic director of the Royal Academy of Music at the Opéra. It is rumored that he withdrew his name from consideration for optic purposes; at the height of his fame within Marie Antoinette’s court, he was her music teacher and they were often seen together reading and performing together and visibly close. This pairing, especially in 18th Century Parisian society, was not acceptable. Out of respect for Marie, he stepped away from the role. 

Far More Than "the Black Mozart"

Bologna has often been labeled as “the Black Mozart” by historians and musical scholars, though a lot of his music was lost during the Revolution, and later forgotten. This characterization, according to Doe’s interview in the Guardian, may be reductive, because Bologne’s life and musical history are fascinating as standalone subjects. The film, however, provides a platform to showcase his talent and how his technique and style varied compared to his peer musicians.

While giving a flavor of the French Revolution, the film also chronicles Bologne’s tumultuous journey as he navigates conflicting loyalties and moral dilemmas when he falls in love with Marie. This complicates matters and we see onscreen how he grapples with his feelings while staying true to his ideals and forced societal conventions.

More importantly, the film offers a glimpse of a man who was intentionally erased from history, probably due to his racial background and illegitimacy. Chevalier is an overdue tribute to a musical genius and a riveting lesson in history that ought to be shared today.

Chevalier premieres in theatres on April 21st! See it at Regal. 

See Chevalier at Regal

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