Music History

Joseph Boulogne Was The "Black Mozart" Before Mozart Was Alive

For Black History Month, Curiosity is highlighting the inspirational stories that you should know (but probably don't) of people who have changed the world.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart should be known as "the white Joseph Boulogne." Born a decade before Mozart, Boulogne is actually often referred to as Le Mozart Noir, or "the black Mozart."

Le Mozart Noir

Operating under the stage name Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Boulogne was a virtuoso violinist as well as the first known classical music composer of African descent. But his amazing music wasn't his only achievement — Boulogne was a world-champion fencer, and commanded the first unit of black soldiers in European history. Boulogne did all this despite being born on a Caribbean plantation to a French commoner and an African slave, which, at his time, would have made it exceptionally difficult to achieve his level of fame and success.

Mozart's Nemesis?

According to some accounts, Boulogne was something of a threat to Mozart and may have even been the inspiration for the villain in the Mozart opera The Magic Flute. According to the Independent, the two would have encountered each other while Mozart was living in Paris in his 20s. "Saint-Georges... at 33 was exotic, brilliant, established, at ease, popular with the ladies and close to the Queen," the article explains. "Everything Mozart was not. Moreover, he led one of the best orchestras in Europe – Le Concert des Amateurs – while Mozart's symphonies received inferior performances at the Concert Spirituel. Mozart had every reason to be jealous of this gifted and successful 'mulatto' colleague, and within the racist society of their day."

Boulogne died at 53, but played music until the end. "Towards the end of my life, I was particularly devoted to my violin," he said. "Never before did I play it so well."

If you're a classical music fan, check out "The Joy of Music" by Leonard Bernstein, a book full Bernstein's essays on the meaning and wonder of music. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

The Life of Joseph Boulogne

Get to know this incredible composer.

Written by Curiosity Staff May 19, 2016

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