Jun 4, 2021

Recap of Tafel Talks: Joseph Bologne, Black & Classical

In May, we hosted Tafel Talks: Joseph Bologne, Black & Classical. This panel discussion explored the music, life, and legacy of the influential Black violinist and composer, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Moderated by Marlon Daniel, a conductor, leading scholar on the music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Artistic and Music Director for the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges, the event welcomed panelists Dr. Christine GangelhoffTanya Charles Iveniuk, and Tafelmusik’s own Patrick G. Jordan.

In case you missed this event, here are some short highlights from the discussion.


The event began with a brief acknowledgement from Tafelmusik’s Executive Director, Carol Kehoe, who spoke about Tafelmusik’s past work with Bologne’s music, and contextualized why we are pursuing a re-release of our recording.

Carol Kehoe: “Tonight's event explores the music, the life, and the legacy of the influential 18th-century Black violinist and composer Joseph Bologne. Celebrated in his time, many of Bologne’s compositions have now been forgotten or were destroyed — while his white contemporaries have remained part of an impressive canon. Bologne has been nicknamed the “Black Mozart”, a problematic term as it perpetuates the erasure of his name and his legacy.”

“In 2003, Tafelmusik’s artistic leadership researched and learned about Bologne’s enormous talent. We released an album of recordings of Bologne’s work, and took part in an accompanying documentary film which told his life story. Both the album and the film were titled Le Mozart Noir, a French translation of the Black Mozart. In 2017, we issued a rerelease of the album and the DVD with new artwork, which depicted the composer in an abstracted and stylized manner with a blank face. Tafelmusik acknowledges that by using the title Le Mozart Noir, as well as artwork which depicts the composer within abstracted blank face, we have contributed to the erasure of Joseph Bologne and his legacy. We are now re-releasing the album with a title that uses his name, new artwork by painter Gordon Shadrach which shows his face, and a written foreword by Marlon Daniel which reframes and contextualises the album, with a goal of properly centering and championing Bologne.”

The event’s moderator, Marlon Daniel, then gave an overview of Bologne’s life and talents.

Marlon Daniel: “In contrast to other classical composers, [Bologne] is not a household name. But in the 18th century, he was one of the greatest musicians and violinists of his time. He was born in Guadeloupe in 1745, and was the son of a wealthy French plantation owner and his mistress, an enslaved woman — who, of course, worked on the plantation and we assume was from the Senegal region of Africa.”

“In 1753, the family relocated to Paris, where Bologne was educated and showed early signs of musical talent. Throughout his life, he resisted the enormous adversities of race and class. He was a celebrated guest in many salons of French aristocracy, and inspired many contemporaries: like Franz Joseph Haydn, and of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He had a very big part in how the classical period was shaped, especially throughout France.”

“As a historical figure, Saint-Georges was quite extraordinary. He was a celebrated colonel in the French military at the time of the French Revolution, and US president John Adams declared him “the most accomplished man in Europe.” His escapades are thought to have inspired the classical novel The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas, whose father Thomas served under Saint-Georges in the Legion.”

Daniel spoke about the process of discovering Bologne’s music for the first time:

MD: “Personally, I first discovered Saint-Georges when I was a student, in the late ‘90s. This was the first time I'd ever heard of hugely influential Black composer. My first reaction was disbelief, followed by a little bit of anger, and then deep curiosity. Since then, I have devoted many years to performing his work, researching in his life, and exploring his stylistic language."

Daniel started the evening’s conversation by zeroing in on the music of Bologne, followed by a series of questions which highlighted Bologne’s place in music history.

What makes the music of Bologne so remarkable?

Patrick Jordan: “For me, what makes his music so remarkable is really in the details of the music. That the period that we call the classical, or the emerging classical style, was sort of an international language. And so, a lot of people were writing music that has the same shape, and the same kinds of sounds — but the details in Saint-Georges’ music are what really grabbed me. There's an attention to detail, and a sort of heightened idea of the unification of the music that I think makes it extraordinarily expressive.”

Tanya Charles Iveniuk: “There are so many things that make him remarkable. But I feel the need to restate that he's remembered as the first classical composer of African descent — and that's wild. Because it suggests that the work that he produced, and the marks that he left, both, you know, in a musical sense, but in at large and historical sense, have survived the times and also shows how remarkable a composer he must have been to break the pattern of locking out whatever other Black talent there might have been that preceded him.

“Also, just being born into a rather difficult situation being that, you know, he's born out of wedlock. He's born to a rich colonialist. And to an enslaved mistress in a time where Blacks don't have a status — and yet, he somehow finds a way to become a great fencer, a great violinist, a great composer, and the opportunity to do so many great things. It's quite impressive.”

Christine Gangelhoff: “To me, the whole Caribbean connection is fascinating. Since he was born on Guadeloupe, and then was taken to Paris at such a young age, we don't really think of his music as “Caribbean” because it's very completely European in nature. But he does have those Caribbean roots. And he's very much celebrated in the in the region. I just think those ties are really important. And for me, in particular, he was one of the first composers that really inspired my research.”

Can you talk about Bologne’s technical prowess, and how his works are challenging, especially for the violin?

TCI: “Saint-Georges’ writing is sort of beyond his time: what we're used to hearing, or what we would have been used to hearing at that time. We know that he was a virtuoso violinist. And he was always looking for ways to challenge his own playing and thereby challenging us as players of his music today. He takes the violinist into these really high registers, climbing, climbing, climbing the instrument, until you reach what I lovingly call the nosebleed section, where you're really, really close to your face. A lot of the time it's very difficult to play up there, because everything is just so tightly bound. And all of a sudden, he drops and you find yourself in the lower range of the instrument. It's actually very difficult to do: it's a very physically difficult thing to achieve, and to achieve it with good intonation. That is characteristic of his style.”

“Another thing that is characteristic of his style, I think, is the string crossings. And I think this is where his fencing background comes in a little bit. I tend to think of his string crossings as being very, very difficult. And it does take a bit of time and a bit of coordination to get around. And, like fencing, it's almost like a little dance. And I feel like that's kind of what he's making us do: by writing such intricate work with string crossings, making our right arms do just as many physically difficult things as our left hand is doing. It's very unique to his time, and almost feels like Paganini — but before Paganini.”

What led to Tafelmusik’s 2003 recording? What was its impact?

PJ: “It was entirely in its early stages driven by [Music Director Emerita] Jeanne Lamon. And it was part of a bigger state of awareness for her, as a Music Director. Around the same time, she was also very interested in the music of Solomon Rosowsky, a Jewish composer from the 17th century. She [programmed] the Four Seasons Mosaic, [an interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons] which explored the music of different cultures [incorporating Indian sarangi, Chinese pipa, and Inuit throat singing]. She also took on some of the gnarlier issues of the anti-Semitism that is a part of Bach’s St John Passion. And so [pursuing a recording of Bologne’s music] fits into a sensibility that Jeanne brought to her role: she wanted to make room for voices that we weren't hearing on a regular basis. And to challenge the white narrative about the history of classical and baroque music of that time: to mix it up, and to make it clearer that that existing narrative has some other agendas behind it. It ain't all Mozart and Haydn. Right?”

CG: “The [Tafelmusik-involved Mozart Noir] documentary was really ahead of the game. I mentioned that Joseph Bologne is one of the first figures that influenced my research. And that film in particular was one of the resources that I found, and I just couldn't believe it existed. I immediately incorporated it into my music history class. I thought it might be a little dry for the students but they were completely captivated. And it was really something they just they couldn't believe: they asked, “why didn't we know about him?” They all knew about Mozart and Beethoven. Even now this this material hasn't trickled down into the curriculum of high school students, so I just wanted to say that this documentary is an invaluable resource.”

Why was he called The Black Mozart, when he himself actually influenced Mozart? And why is calling him “Black Mozart” or “Mozart Noir” a problem?

TCI: “I think it can be likened to Canadians and Americans, and how we think of ourselves in a context. What if the question was, “what's wrong with calling Canadians the polite and apologetic Americans of the North?” It's kind of the same thing, right? We've been dubbed this and it's widely known. But, you know, that's the sort of the stereotype that erases our culture, and our multiculturalism, our identity, our music or institutions. And I think this is what the Black Mozart name does: it makes {Bologne] inferior. It puts him into a box of “sameness.” And I don't think that's accurate.”

PJ: “It perpetuates this narrative of the emergence of the canon of Great Western music in the 19th century, right? We didn't always play Corelli, or Mozart — because you know, Mozart wasn't always around, either. It just feeds that narrative we've been telling ourselves for 150 or 200 years, and it's just not true. When I research composers and music more widely between 1750 and 1830, I often find new people — their music is not always as good as Saint Georges. But some of it is — and it’s common to just suppress them all.”

CG: “There's a Haitian composer and pianist Ludovic Lamothe, who is known as the “Black Chopin.” And there are countless other examples of European composers of African descent. And to me, using these monikers centres whiteness, and it really reinforces that classical music is a white tradition: a European white tradition. And, and so we're basically trying to deconstruct that concept, and show through the Caribbean—since that's where I'm based—show that no, this is a tradition that includes a lot of different people from different backgrounds. There’s a whole problem as you touched on, of systemic racism and classical music.”

What can we do to increase awareness of Black classical artists, and diverse classical artists?

TCI: “I think it's about giving them presence and giving them a voice. And so if they're composers, program their works; if they're musicians, give them a platform for their art. Just simple things like that. And these are not new initiatives, really.”

MD: “I think education and mentorship. They’re really big, critical tools in this.”

CG: “I took over as artistic director of the Nassau Music Society about three years ago. They’ve been around for about 50 years now. And it had been perceived in the community as an organisation that put on classical concerts, and that [local] people weren't involved in that, or that they weren't welcome. You’d go to concerts, and it would be mostly old white people. And the majority of the performers were also white. And so the first thing that I did was to make sure that the program, the programming, was inclusive, and was definitely more representative. And that people felt welcome.”

“So it’s about the programming itself, but then also marketing and the outreach, all of those things that would it get to a wider audience. And so one of the first performers I programmed was Liam Teague, who's a steel pan player from Trinidad. He's a music professor in Illinois now. And he's an amazing virtuoso. At the time it was a very controversial move to do that, but I wanted to really make a statement. He played one classical concert of a full range of composers, and then one more popular and Calypso concert. And we've slowly just completely changed the face of the organisation, and myself and the board. It's been incredible: the audience has diversified. We have a full outreach program. I feel that's so important, and I couldn't really be in this position if I didn't do these things.”

There seems to be a heightened and renewed interest in Bologne now, in this current moment. Can you speak to what that means, the importance of this?

TCI: “I think perhaps [the renewed interest in Bologne] is causing us all to pause, and just give a thought as to how we found ourselves here in the first place: now knowing what we know about him. Because, it's undeniable now that he has left a wealth of his compositions, and wealth of musicality behind. I really do hope [his music will] make it to regular concert rotations and programming. But if we're only now resurrecting this information about Saint-Georges — and his works, and his life, and his story — 200 or so years later, I think he's also left me with the question: who else did we potentially miss or forget along the way? Because there are so many artists of today, who would similarly identify as BIPOC. Who, if we don't uplift them, if we don't support them, if we don't allow them the space, could we run the risk of repeating the same history, like we have [with Bologne]? Are we missing our chance today to recognise and highlight and promote other BIPOC artists like him? Or, are we instead, perhaps, gambling on somebody rediscovering that person? 200 years from now? Or maybe not at all? I feel like that's problematic. So, he's left positive things. But he's also left a big question mark that I think needs exploration.”

MD: “Without opportunity, there's no growth: we can't learn from our mistakes if we don't learn from history. And I think that's a really big thing with Saint-Georges, he’s one of the first—if not the first—examples who shows us that important BIPOC and composers of colour have been around for a very, very long time. It's not something new, but something that's been ignored, or been suppressed, in many ways.”


To read more about Bologne, visit our further reading page at https://www.tafelmusik.org/breaking-baroque/joseph-bologne-recommended-reading-resources

To learn more about our forthcoming re-release of The Music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, visit our media release at https://www.tafelmusik.org/media-room/media-releases/releases/music-joseph-bologne-chevalier-de-saint-georges

Joseph Bologne