This past Sunday, I was fortunate enough to attend a concert by the Camerata di Sant’ Antonio here in Buffalo. They are a string ensemble who performs a regular Mozart series (among other things), and this year their Mozart series has featured “other” Mozarts—that is, people identified by the contemporary press as “The Italian Mozart” or “The Finnish Mozart” or—in the case of the Sunday concert—“Mozart Noir,” the Chevalier de Saint-George.
The Chevalier de Saint-George, or Joseph Boulogne (sometimes spelled Bologne) was the son of a white West Indian planter and his slave. The planter was married, but nonetheless Joseph was his first son and he treated him as such, educating him and taking him to Paris when he left Guadeloupe in the late 1740s. Joseph was educated in Paris as a gentleman, and became known as one of the best fencers and best violinists of his day. He eventually became Marie Antoinette’s music instructor, and composed a number of concertos, symphonies, string quartets and operas. He also was later imprisoned by the Revolutionary government, though he was eventually pardoned.
In many ways, it is incorrect to call Boulogne the “Mozart Noir” because in fact, he was already playing and composing before Mozart even began. It is said that Mozart, who attended one of Boulogne’s concerts in Paris, was inspired by him in writing his Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat Major. How do I know all this? There are two fine children’s books about the Chevalier de Saint-George, Before there was Mozart (2011) by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome, and The Other Mozart (2007) by Hugh Brewster, with pictures by Eric Velasquez. Both books focus mainly on Boulogne’s time at the royal court, with lots of illustrations of women in 18th century gowns and men in knee breeches. Guadeloupe, where Boulogne was born, is quickly traded for Paris; racism and anti-slavery movements are peripheral to these stories because they want to focus on the triumph of his music. However, that these are stories of success “despite” race is evident at the conclusion of both narratives. Brewster writes that “In a world where black people could hope to be little more than servants, Joseph Bologne, Monsieur de Saint-George, had become one of the most dazzling and celebrated men of his time” (Other Mozart 44). And the Ransomes suggest that Boulogne “spent his later years fighting to abolish slavery in the colonies” (Before there was Mozart n.p.), which may refer to a trip that he MIGHT have taken to Haiti on behalf of the French government to assess the situation of the island under Toussaint L’Ouverture. There is no clear evidence that Boulogne took such a trip, or joined abolitionist groups, but it certainly makes for a better story to tell to children.
However, I didn’t go to the concert to hear the music of Boulogne; I went for the other major composer on the program, the man labelled by New York musicians as “the Black Mahler,” Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an Afro-British composer of the late Victorian/Edwardian era. I’d encountered Coleridge-Taylor’s name in Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina’s edited collection Black Victorians/Black Victoriana, in an article by Jeffrey Green. What I know about Coleridge-Taylor comes from academic sources, not children’s books. As far as I can determine, there is only one biography of Coleridge-Taylor for children, and that is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: The Music Man (2008), written by a primary school class in Manchester, England, and published by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust (the front cover illustration of the book is shown below; go to http://www.racearchive.org.uk/publications/#black-british-heroes to see the Trust’s other publications). Unlike Joseph Boulogne, Coleridge-Taylor is not widely performed or recorded (in fact, the Sunday concert I attended included the US premier of his Haytian Dances, composed more than a hundred years ago). Only his work based on Longfellow’s Hiawatha is performed with any regularity. The conductor on Sunday gave a long introduction to the Chevalier de Saint-George’s life before performing his work, but when it came to Coleridge-Taylor, he said that “little is known” about the composer. Why is there such a difference between the presentations of the two composers?
One reason may be that Coleridge-Taylor does not fit in the box we assign to people of African descent. Publishers for children tend to favor stories about slaves (or their offspring) who make good, or about leaders or participants in civil rights movements. These are the eras when black people are allowed to exist in children’s literature. Coleridge-Taylor eventually met the US president, but he was born to a working-class white mother (whose own mother had been a domestic servant) and a Nigerian-born doctor, who abandoned her before Coleridge-Taylor was born. He grew up near a slaughterhouse, and had no formal musical training until he was made a scholarship student at the newly opened Royal College of Music. He endured racial slurs as a regular feature of his life in London, and is not known to have fought back (unlike the fencing champion Joseph Boulogne). He died at 37, most sources say of overwork. His music also does not always fit into the public conception of “African” composers’ music. Music, especially as promoted in children’s literature, has both national and racial qualities; Jamaican music is reggae only, Trinidadian music is all calypso, and Haitian music, from evidence in both 19th and 20th century children’s books, is composed at least in part of “voodoo drums”. But Coleridge-Taylor’s Haytian Dances were very different from this image; the dances are elegant and refined, suggesting country weddings and Port-au-Prince ballrooms. Neither in his life nor his music, therefore, does Coleridge-Taylor provide confirmation for readers of previously-existing stereotypes about the lives and achievements of people of African descent. But his story and his achievements are no less important because of this. In fact, because they provide evidence of how ordinary Afro-British people lived in the post-slavery and pre-Windrush period, and because they challenge stereotypes of how we think about all people of African descent, Coleridge-Taylor’s story and achievement may be more important.