Two centuries before Saint George Floyd, there was the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, another black martyr to white supremacy. Such, at least, is the premise of Chevalier, a movie directed by Stephen Williams, released in early 2023 in the United States to a credulous press. Chevalier purports to tell the story of Joseph Bologne, an eighteenth-century swordsman, violinist, and composer, who played a modest role in the court of King Louis XVI. Bologne was the son of a French plantation owner and his Caribbean slave, and therein lies his present interest for music history.
In the George Floyd era, it was inevitable that the half-black Bologne would be exhumed from obscurity and accorded a status to rival the geniuses of Western classical music. Bologne is now routinely referred to as the Black Mozart (they were rough contemporaries). But even that hyperbole does not go far enough. We also hear that Mozart is the White Chevalier, a comparison of such preposterous gall that the mind cannot begin to take it in.
The claims made on behalf of Bologne’s music violate aesthetic truth. The movie Chevalier, however, shreds history itself in order to show that European civilization is unremittingly racist.
Joseph Bologne was born on his father’s Guadeloupe sugar plantation around 1745; his mother was a young Guadeloupean slave named Nanon. Bologne’s father, Georges Bologne de Saint-Georges, tried to give his son every advantage. Since swordsmanship was an essential accoutrement of the nobility, Georges enrolled Joseph in France’s premier fencing academy when he was 13. Louis XVI made Joseph a “chevalier” (knight) at 19 in recognition of his swordsman skills and inducted him into the King’s Royal Guard (consisting of aristocratic cavalrymen). Joseph and his mother, who had joined him in Paris around 1765, lived off the proceeds of Georges Bologne’s plantation until 1774, thanks to a generous annuity conferred on Joseph by his father. Joseph has not been canceled for benefiting from slavery. Indeed, Chevalier and other Bologne hagiographies are silent about that annuity, which would torpedo any white composer.
In addition to fencing and riding, Joseph studied the violin and music composition. In 1772, he debuted as a soloist with one of Paris’s many orchestras, the Concert des Amateurs, performing two of his own violin concerti. The next year, Joseph was appointed music director of that same orchestra and brought it, according to several contemporary accounts, to an impressive standard of performance.
It is hard to see the crippling effects of racism on Bologne’s career through this point. True, while Bologne was still a fencing student, a fencing master from Rouen had called him an “upstart mulatto.” Bologne was promptly given the opportunity to vindicate his honor, and he bested the Rouen swordsman in a duel. His father celebrated Joseph’s victory with the gift of a horse and buggy.
Bologne’s mixed race did not hinder his reception into royal French society. In fact, he probably benefited from his exotic parentage. High-born females were said to be seduced by his athletic prowess, statuesque frame, and dancing skills.
In 1776, however, when Queen Marie Antoinette was considering appointing Bologne to run the Paris Opera, France’s premier opera venue, three singers signed a race-based petition in opposition. Leur honneur et la délicatesse de leur conscience ne leur permettraient jamais d’être soumises aux ordres d’un mulâtre (“their honor and the delicacy of their conscience would never allow them to submit to a mulatto’s orders”), wrote the sopranos. (The filmmakers rewrite the petition to make it more racially inflammatory, inserting the phrase “belonging to a subhuman race,” after “mulatto.”) The king and queen took Bologne out of the running and put the opera into the hands of an administrator from within the royal entourage.
This episode, distorted almost beyond recognition, is the fulcrum of Chevalier’s racism narrative. But Bologne’s race may not have been the critical factor in sidelining his candidacy. Some insiders feared that he would try to shake up the Paris Opera and centralize power in his own hands, according to musicologist Patrick Barbier. Defenders of the status quo, on this view, joined forces to eliminate the apparent threat posed by the upstart knight.
Undeterred, Bologne would continue composing and conducting. In 1781, he helped organize an orchestra associated with an exclusive Freemason club, La Loge Olympique, of which he was a member. (La Loge Olympique commissioned Franz Joseph Haydn’s six Paris symphonies; Bologne conducted their premiere.) Bologne’s relationship to the French Revolution was ambiguous; he was imprisoned as a royalist for 18 months during the Reign of Terror, yet royalists had also denounced him for his association with aristocratic supporters of the revolution.
In short, an interesting life, thanks to Bologne’s race and the circumstances of his birth. If Bologne had been white, he never would have inspired a nineteenth-century romantic novel, subsequent biographical research, and the current Bologne performance boom, which has seen internationally renowned soloists like Anne-Sophie Mutter playing his featherlight violin concerti in world-class venues like the Lucerne Festival. But while interesting, that life is not the stuff of Black Lives Matter–type agitation. Hence the need for fabrication, which is what Chevalier provides in every scene.
The movie’s opening episode telegraphs the duplicity to come. A self-satisfied young prig performs on the violin in a rococo theater. “My name is Mozart, in case you are unaware,” he smirks to the audience, who presumably would have known the name of the performer they had come to hear. “Because you have been such a delightful audience, I might open the floor to requests.” A voice comes from the back of the hall: “Violin Concerto Number Five!” and then asks, “May I play along with you?” A light-skinned black man in a silk outfit and wig strides toward the stage and jumps onto it. Mozart mocks him to the audience: “I now give you music featuring the dark stranger,” and then sneers in a stage whisper: “This will be embarrassing for you.”
Instead, Bologne furls out a silken, singing line from his violin. Flustered, Mozart stops the orchestra and calls out for his cadenza (a solo at the end of the first or third movement of a concerto that allows a performer to show off his talent). After Mozart plays a few bars, Bologne improvises his own jazz-inflected cadenza. Audience members look at one another in amazement—as well they might, since anyone who had played such harmonies in the 1770s would have been regarded as a lunatic. Bologne jumps off the stage and, still playing, walks toward the back of the theater, now sounding like the nineteenth-century virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini. The orchestra backs Bologne up with resounding chords; Mozart is furious. Bologne jumps back onto the stage, now weaving into his solo some bluegrass touches. Then, raising his arms and violin, he bows, like a boxer who has just knocked out his opponent. The audience leaps to its feet in applause. Mozart rushes off the stage and hisses: “Who the fuck is that?”
This scene not only did not happen; it could not have happened. None of the Mozart family’s copious correspondence mentions Bologne. Two definitive Mozart biographies, those by Maynard Solomon and Stanley Sadie, make no reference to Bologne. A third biography, by Robert Gutman, brings up Bologne only in a footnote in order to say that Mozart did not meet him. Mozart was not even in Paris when this scene allegedly occurred. No contemporary account of Mozart gives any hint of the mean-spiritedness that defines his character in Chevalier’s opening scene. Though he could be critical of his fellow musicians in letters to his father, in public he showed his colleagues respect. As for the racial jab, that is even ranker fabrication.
But the primary reason that this seminal scene could not have happened is the music. Bologne’s alleged cadenza is as anachronistic as if he had pulled out a smartphone and taken a selfie. Its jazz idioms would not become possible for another 150 years. The cadenza is even more out of place when compared with Bologne’s own compositions, which were thoroughly conventional. His music can be mildly pleasing, not because of any unique gifts on Bologne’s part but because the eighteenth-century Classical style in which he wrote is inherently delightful. Indeed, it is the banality that he achieves within that idiom that sets him apart, as his most performed work, the second symphony and its lugubrious second movement, makes clear. (Admittedly, the final decades of the ancien régime were not a high point in French music history, as the works of François-Joseph Gossec and the organist Claude Balbastre demonstrate.) Bologne favors truncated melodic phrases that are almost immediately repeated verbatim, with little development.
It is no surprise, then, that any time in Chevalier when we hear Bologne in an alleged performance of his own composition, the music has actually been written by one of the film’s composers, drawing on modernists such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Thelonious Monk. Bologne’s actual music is confined to the background, as the actors talk over it, making detection of its blandness impossible. Yet the takeaway from the opening scene is that Bologne is Mozart’s musical superior and that Mozart—that miracle of majesty and beauty—knew it.
We also learn that Bologne is one tough dude, a self-confident, empowered black man who is not going to take any BS from the white overseers. Throughout the movie, we see him promoting himself and insulting rivals to their face. The actual Bologne left no letters or other documents that might have fleshed out his personality, but contemporary accounts give no hint of the cockiness on display in the movie. Indeed, a fellow composer lauded his modestie et . . . douceur (“modesty and gentleness”). Nevertheless, Williams’s movie endows him with what, in any other context, would be seen as racist stereotypes. A soprano notes admiringly that other males in the court are “all extremely jealous of your very large [long pause] talent.”
Next in Chevalier’s crosshairs: the German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–87), the most important opera reformer of the eighteenth century. The movie’s treatment of Gluck is even more astonishing than that of Mozart, since it jettisons known facts that easily discredit its imaginary chronology and plot.
According to Chevalier, Gluck has come to Paris to seek the directorship of the Paris Opera. The initial encounter between the two contenders goes as one would expect: Gluck is a racist. Bologne self-confidently asks Gluck whether the composer has heard of him. Gluck responds: “Oh, yes, the show-off who spoiled Mozart’s concert. I hear he is writing you into his new opera as the villain: dark-skinned and evil.”
If the “new opera” the filmmakers have in mind is The Magic Flute, with its Moorish character, Monostatos, that opera was written in 1791, at the end of Mozart’s life and 15 years after this scene is allegedly taking place: 1776. Monostatos is a stock comic type, bumbling and loudmouthed, bearing no resemblance to the refined Chevalier. He is no more “antiblack” than the bumbling or hysterical white characters in Mozart’s operas—Count Almaviva, Donna Elvira, Elettra, Don Ottavio—are “antiwhite.”
Marie Antoinette proposes that Bologne and Gluck each write an opera, whose quality will determine who gets the directorship. Bologne allegedly composes his opera Ernestine for the contest, though it was written a year after the film’s competition would have taken place. Gluck allegedly composes Iphigénie en Aulide for the contest, which, in fact, premiered in Paris in 1774, two years before the supposed competition. The movie shows the concluding scene of each opera—Ernestine beautifully staged and sung, Iphigénie en Aulide performed off-key by fat, dowdy singers. Clearly, Ernestine is the superior work, and the directorship is all but guaranteed to its composer. Then the singers’ petition intervenes, and Marie Antoinette confers the post on Gluck.
Bologne confronts Gluck at a party celebrating the latter’s elevation to the position. “Congratulations on a brilliant opera,” he says sarcastically. “There is nothing more stale than Greek tragedy, but you’ve outdone yourself. I only nodded off once.” Bologne then turns to the soprano who had been so impressed with his “very large . . . talent” and is now among his enemies: “You’re a snake, a coward. You know I’m the best,” he says furiously. She corroborates Bologne’s judgment: “You’re right, I do.” Time for another racial insult: “But I don’t care because you don’t belong here. You’re a party trick, a pet, you’re a little monkey playing the violin. . . . Go back to your cage, run home. Better yet, leave France and go back to wherever you came from.” Bologne accuses her of sleeping with Gluck after Bologne rebuffed her advances. Gluck whines: “Must he be here?”
This subplot exists in an alternative universe. There was no opera competition for the Paris Opera directorship. Gluck did not seek out that post, he was never under consideration for it, and he never held it. Of course, there is no record that he ever met Bologne or knew who he was.
But as with the Mozart duel, the most astounding fabrication is the aesthetic one. At the time that the competition purportedly took place, Gluck was changing the course of music history. He had become the most respected opera composer in all of Europe—the “Michelangelo of music,” in the words of eighteenth-century critic Charles Burney. Far from being “stale,” as Bologne suggests in the movie, Gluck’s works were seen as revolutionary, at once simplifying the ornate formal elements of Italian court opera, known as “opera seria,” and deepening the expressive content of the music.
In 1774, the French version of Orfeo ed Euridice (originally performed in Italian) had a triumphant debut at the Académie Royale (this was two years before Gluck, according to Chevalier, had even arrived in Paris). Orphée et Eurydice’s emotional impact led Jean-Jacques Rousseau to renounce his previous belief that the French language was unsuited for opera. It even altered his view of existence itself: “Because one can experience such great pleasure for two hours, I can conceive that life may be good for something,” he wrote. Voltaire responded, after the Paris debut: “We are all Gluck.”
Chevalier argues, however, that Bologne’s formulaic compositions make him the patent superior to Gluck’s heartrending melodies and dramatic intensity. It even turns one of Gluck’s most devoted admirers into a condescending critic. In real life, the author Caroline-Stéphanie-Félicité, known as Madame de Genlis, was so addicted to Gluck that she attended every rehearsal of Iphigénie en Tauride. In Williams’s movie, she yearns to “rub his nose in all that greasy smarm,” as she puts it to Bologne, as if Gluck’s only hope for recognition were toadying to royalty. (In fact, Gluck was imperious and temperamental. As the childhood music teacher of Marie Antoinette in Vienna, he hardly needed to ingratiate himself with the queen.)
The opera that Bologne supposedly wrote for the fictional competition, Ernestine, closed after one performance. Bologne’s other operas fared almost as poorly, receiving, at most, four performances before shutting down. They had no influence on anything. (Ironically, his one extant opera score, The Anonymous Lover, contains more energy than most of his instrumental compositions.)
The supposed dog of an opera that the film’s Gluck composed for the fictional competition, Iphigénie en Aulide, proved so popular that a line from one of its choruses was routinely sung to greet the arrival of the queen. No matter. Per Chevalier, a mediocre, racist white composer pushed aside a groundbreaking black composer due to pervasive antiblackness in France and the French court.
On to the next musical fiction, perhaps the most ridiculous of all. After his unjust loss to Gluck, Bologne is moping around, mournfully playing another of his fantastical time-travel violin solos in an empty theater. His mother, allegedly only recently allowed to join Bologne in Paris (whereas, in fact, she had been with him for a decade), tells him that he has let “these rich white people soften you.” Nanon is given to channeling early Al Sharpton and vintage Howard Zinn in her denunciations of “white people” and their immoral consumption patterns. It is time for Bologne to reconnect with his black roots. The mother takes him to a courtyard, where hundreds of blacks are unexplainedly barbecuing and dancing to Caribbean music. One expects to hear Harry Belafonte break into “Day-O” at any moment. Bologne sits down at a large bongo drum and immediately gets into the Afro-Caribbean groove, improvising beats with the other drummers. This infusion of blackness reorients him from his identification with the aristocracy to a sympathy with the masses. His mother tells him: “They ask about you out there, you know, the people. They miss your music.”
We are supposed to believe that the “people” had heard Bologne’s wispy string quartets and symphonies and, more fancifully, that the “people” had somehow let it be known that they were feeling Bologne-deprived. Inspired by this popular support, Bologne announces that he will put on a benefit concert for Egalité, even though it would be 13 years before the new National Constituent Assembly would declare the “Rights of Man and the Citizen” and the mob would storm the Bastille. Bologne’s music for his pro-Revolution fund-raiser has now gone full Hollywood film score: overwrought, snare-drum-saturated, and repetitious—this last characteristic making it at least structurally comparable with Bologne’s actual compositions. Both the orchestra and the audience are filled with more unexplained black people, who pump their fists and shout: “We won’t let you take him! Let him go!” (The audience does not shout: “Hands up, don’t shoot!” but that must have been a writerly oversight.) Actually, it was the revolutionaries, not the royalists, who would “take” Bologne in 1793 because of his ties to the royal family.
In the mandatory romantic subplot, Bologne has an affair with his leading soprano, Marie-Josephine, wife of Marc René, the Marquis de Montalembert. The marquis in real life was an expert in military fortifications; in the movie, he is another racist trying to beat back the “enemy inside France.” Marie-Josephine is a feminist, given to pronouncements as incongruous as the film’s black-power rhetoric. “I can pretend to be not at all troubled by my lack of autonomy, but only for so long,” she tells Bologne. Marie-Josephine becomes pregnant, and when the baby is discovered to be of mixed race, the marquis kills it.
Other racial fabrications abound in the film—a Kristallnacht-like beatdown from Bologne’s fellow fencing students, long speeches about the “dark pestilence” that is putting the purity of France’s blood under siege. The epilogue at the end of the movie asserts that Napoléon Bonaparte ordered the prohibition of Bologne’s music. This claim, according to Peter Hicks, the historian and foreign-affairs manager at the Fondation Napoléon, is, “of course, complete nonsense.” Chevalier’s creators, however, need a racial explanation for why Bologne’s music disappeared for more than 200 years.
The press has amplified Chevalier’s every conceit. Rex Reed, writing in the Observer, claims that Bologne “shocked and tantalized society with his astounding genius as a composer, violinist, and swordsman.” The Roger Ebert franchise declares that Chevalier is a “necessary true story that will surely enlighten many viewers.” AP News outstrips the movie itself in its demonstrably false claims: Bologne’s “influence was vast,” we learn. It is only because of evil white people, who “purposefully” erased Bologne from history books, that that influence has gone unrecognized. Indiewire claims that Bologne was “so talented that he was often referred to as the ‘Black Mozart.’ ” No one would have thought to make that comparison at the time. The Black Mozart moniker is a product of contemporary race politics.
The Los Angeles Times works itself into a lather over Bologne’s undeserved obscurity. His is a “story that’s been crushed under the brutal wheel of history, war and racism.” Actually, Bologne had his nineteenth-century chronicler. The only reason Bologne got the attention he has enjoyed is because of race.
Scriptwriter Stefani Robinson sees in Bologne an adumbration of her own plight as a black person—her talent destined to be ignored and disparaged. “Extraordinarily talented Black people . . . have to be twice as good and work twice as hard to own what’s yours,” she told Indiewire. “The true reality is it doesn’t matter how good you are. I bought into that idea: work hard, make good grades, write my ass off, lean in, make myself perfect, somehow I’ll be untouchable. It’s a faulty armor, an illusion. In that moment, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you aren’t going to get the Paris Opera.”
This ubiquitous claim—that blacks have to be twice as good as anyone else even to be considered for a job—is as fanciful as the movie itself. Orchestras, opera companies, Hollywood studios, theaters, corporations, universities, medical schools, elite law firms, media companies, scientific research labs and journals, STEM departments, and hospitals at present hire, promote, admit, and contract with as many blacks as possible, often ignoring large academic skills gaps to do so.
For many viewers, Chevalier will constitute their only exposure to European history and will be regarded as definitive. The film may tell us next to nothing about the ancien régime’s music world and one of its minor players. But it is a peerless example of the hatred for the Western past that now animates our cultural production and that increasingly defines our understanding of that past.
Top Photo: Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Joseph Bologne, the son of a French plantation owner and Caribbean slave who became an eighteenth-century musician and composer, in Chevalier, a movie that distorts history to advance its claim that European civilization is unremittingly racist. (SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES/PHOTOFEST)