Thoughts on writing about an 18th-century black violinist

These days are tough, no question about it. It’s a time to raise the voices of people of color, hear their stories and listen to their pain. I fervently believe that #blacklivesmatter. But as much as I empathize with those who face personal and systemic racism every day, I’ll never be able to understand what it truly feels like, deep in my soul.

I’m a privileged white woman. Why did I write a black violinist into my book?

I have an answer to that question, but let me step back a moment. A major point of the historical fiction I write—whether for teens or adults—is to raise the forgotten voices of women at different periods of history. That desire arose from my research for my PhD in music history. I encountered again and again the ways in which women were marginalized. Often relegated to the role of performer rather than creator, they became objects to be controlled, possessed. That is the premise of my very first book, Émilie’s Voice.

Yet women also found ways to raise their voices within the constraints placed on them by society. And when I couldn’t find her to tell the story I wanted to tell, I created that feisty young woman who pushed the boundaries.

Enter Theresa Schurman, violinist and boundary breaker.

This creature from my imagination who lives in the Vienna of Haydn and Mozart has been great fun to write. But through her eyes, I’ve tried to raise awareness of the prejudices and inequities that existed in Europe at that time: about the Roma, the Jews, and in the third book—quite by chance in the course of my research—a black musician and composer.

I can have no real sense, other than what I’ve read in articles and in Gabriel Banat’s fabulous book (available for a mere $900) of what Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges faced in the way of prejudice on a daily basis. What I do know is that he had to be better in every way than his white European counterparts. The laws in France regarding colonial slaves and the progeny of slaves were murky and didn’t make a lot of sense, but Joseph attended the best schools and had the best training in fencing. This was thanks to his father, who clearly loved him and his mother, a freed Senegalese house slave. Bologne set them up in a fine house in Paris and settled a handsome income on his son when he came of age.

Jospeh possessed a prodigious amount of talent, was very handsome, and known as the finest swordsman in Paris. He also invited Haydn—the fictional Theresa’s godfather—to come to Paris, where the Viennese composer wrote his gorgeous Paris Symphonies.

How could I not have Theresa meet and admire this extraordinary figure?

The Chevalier de Saint-Georges was black in 18th-century France. A very different experience from being black in 18th-century America.

Although plenty of Europeans made their wealth from the toil of African slaves in the colonies, by the late eighteenth century, slavery had been functionally abolished within most European countries. Nonetheless, prejudices existed. Joseph had a brilliant career as a violinist and music director in the most famous musical institutions in Paris. But when he became director of the Paris opera, a group of the female singers protested to Marie Antoinette that they did not want to take direction from a “Mulatto.” Joseph gracefully bowed out. What else could he do?

He also faced an assassination attempt at one point, but Banat conjectures that a jealous husband might have been involved. Joseph was apparently quite the ladies’ man.

Back to why I put a black violinist in my book.

First, he’s historical. This man lived, and he attained prominence in the 18th-century Parisian musical world as part of the Orléans household. Later, he became politically involved in the Orléanist party during the French Revolution. But that is outside the timeline of The Paris Affair.

Second, Saint-Georges existed in a milieu that is within my scope of experience and expertise, and I should have known about him. Someone like Theresa could well have encountered him in the course of her musical life. My challenge has been to believably convey Theresa’s reactions to a black musician in the context of her world. I chose not to give her racial prejudices, instead making her appreciate him for his talent and character.

I had not heard of Joseph Bologne before doing the research for this book. How many other artists of color existed in those times and were subsequently written out of history? The sad fact is that even today, the big orchestras have very few black members. Perhaps that is partly by inclination. Or perhaps it’s because predominantly black schools have not been well enough funded to offer the kind of musical enrichment programs that lead to those opportunities.

Whatever the reason, I hope my readers enjoy getting to know Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, as much as I did.

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