Learn more about The Chevalier, a concert theater production that will be presented at Caramoor on July 10th at 4:00pm.
This blog post features the words of Bill Barclay, the director and writer of The Chevalier. He also is an actor in the production, in the role of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, who was a French novelist, official, Freemason, and army general, best known for writing the epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) (1782).
You will be able to find this piece in the program book to be handed out during the July 10th production.
I only found out about Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, in 2018. I was shocked. Here is a man whose story is, by far, the most surprising of any composer I’d ever studied. His music is wonderful and unknown, and he was mixed race at a time of horrific racial violence. As a musicologist of period music, I immediately learned all I could.
As I became more familiar with his life and music, a question emerged in my mind that utterly grabbed me and would not let me go: How as a culture have we allowed ourselves to forget this extraordinary man? For not only is he a composer, but an abolitionist, champion fencer, virtuoso violinist, music teacher to Marie Antoinette, Knight of the King, and general of the first Black regiment in military history. Why is he not more celebrated? What happened here?
On realizing the need for Bologne’s transformational story today, I approached several playwrights of color to collaborate with me. I wished to procure the best of Bologne’s music to score a drama about his life, and I didn’t want to do it alone. Those conversations sadly were fruitless. I next turned to large theaters who could offer the ideal writer a commission I could not afford. This tactic also failed. Finally I spoke to the Boston Symphony and explained the need for Bologne in our history of music where he was mysteriously absent. They offered me an opportunity to educate their audience during the inaugural season of the Tanglewood Learning Institute in 2019. I had written works of concert theatre for the BSO before and had earned my MFA in Playwriting. With only six months to produce a draft, I decided I had to do it all myself.
It was clear from the energetic response at the Tanglewood performance that Bologne had been forgotten far too long. The format of scenes and music could be improved, but it needed to tour so that new audiences could learn as we were learning. In the two years that have since transpired, the world has irrevocably changed. We’ve experienced Black Lives Matter which has encouraged many promoters to look for neglected artists. Bologne’s music has enjoyed a long-needed resurgence as a result of those efforts. And yet, as is so often the case, most orchestras are playing the same two of his compositions. Most will move on with their regularly scheduled programming. But there is so much more, not only of his wonderful music, but also of his life — his efforts as the first true artist advocate to abolish slavery, his humanity, struggles, and even his sense of humor — that is yet to be widely understood. This play aspires to be one of many attempts to correct that.
It is astonishing, for example, that he and Mozart lived under the same roof in 1778. Mozart’s mother had just died and he was alone and ill — this is all true. How he got there and what they must have discussed, we have no idea. But there are enticing slivers of musical influence that passed from Bologne to Mozart, and which deserve to be dramatically explored for posterity to consider.
Around this time, Marie Antoinette asked specifically for Bologne to be her private music teacher, creating enormous gossip and elevating Bologne to pole position in France. Her advocacy for Bologne to be head of the Paris Opera was true. The petition that came back to haunt them both represented the limits of his career as a Black artist during slavery, and her limits as Queen of France while the world turned on her. Marie Antionette, Mozart, and Bologne were all immigrants, and while their challenges were enormously different, none felt accepted by pre-revolutionary Paris.
This was also the year King Louis XVI enacted Les Police des Noirs — literally “The Black Police,” a new force tasked with identifying all people of color in Paris, not unlike Jews in 1930’s Germany. The radical wing of French politics sought to return free Black people to slavery, which to the French was out-of-sight, thousands of miles away, on the three colonial islands: Martinique, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), and Guadeloupe (Bologne’s birthplace). Bologne suffered horrible physical attacks and his share of insults and indignities. Contemporary reports show that his incredible gifts at fencing and diplomacy allowed him to survive with his head held high.
This concert version is merely Act I of a longer play that takes us through Bologne’s revolutionary years. We can only tease the second half of his life tonight, while insinuating parallels between the stirrings of revolution in Paris and the brewing toxic polarity of our politics today. Amidst all the drama and research, I have been the enormous beneficiary of so much help from friends, actors, readers, and dramaturgs of color who have helped me understand Bologne’s psychology. It is a humbling process, a deeply collaborative one, and it is not complete. We are learning more about Bologne with every artist, audience, and promoter who comes into contact with him. I eagerly encourage you to share your thoughts with me directly, at [email protected].
The Chevalier will tour over the next several years to orchestras around the world. All North American ensembles who perform The Chevalier, and any of our other Concert Theatre Works, must join the National Alliance for Audition Support, run by the Sphinx Organization in Detroit, which provides audition grants for Black and Latino musicians. I encourage you to learn more about this fabulous initiative. We have made efforts to start one for European orchestras, so that together, through our combined efforts, orchestras start to look more like the audiences they seek and deserve.
I encourage you to be in touch, think critically, speak up, and look for more marginalized voices whom history has tragically forgotten.
— Bill Barclay