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Joseph Bologne and Karl Jenkins: Misrepresented composers, centuries apart

One was a viral joke about Meghan Markle, the other an injustice that stalled a glittering career. Mischaracterisations hit both Karl Jenkins and Joseph Bologne

Kelvin Harrison Jr as Joseph Bologne playing a violin

Kelvin Harrison Jr as Joseph Bologne in Chevalier. Image: Larry Horricks courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

In among the press releases for the latest smart speaker, concert series and, because I once worked on an industrial machinery magazine, a forklift truck, one sentence catches my attention. “Man with Glasses and Mullet at Coronation to Celebrate Birthday with Distinguished Concerts International New York at Carnegie Hall.” The person in question is Karl Jenkins, the Welsh composer responsible for The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, a popular choral work that juxtaposes sacred and secular texts and commemorates those lost in conflict. The 79-year-old was recently voted Classic FM’s most popular living composer with The Armed Man performed on average twice a week across the world.

Yet, thanks to a joke that went viral, Jenkins is currently better known as the figure claimed to be Meghan Markle in disguise at Westminster Abbey. Sat next to Andrew Lloyd Webber – who, like Jenkins, had also written music especially for the royal ceremony – Jenkins’s tinted aviators, combined with his distinctive handlebar moustache and long hair, attracted speculation that an attendee was there incognito. The hirsute guest was said to be a crown jewel thief, Donald Trump, or, the suggestion that gained most traction, the Duchess of Sussex. Suddenly, a composer was pictured in People, Us Weekly and NME. “It’s ridiculous,” Jenkins told CNN, “people have been buying me drinks in pubs and pointing at me.” Despite his best-selling back-catalogue and a knighthood, it seems Sir Karl is destined to be ‘Man with glasses and mullet at Coronation’ for a little while longer. 

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Another composer who has been mischaracterised – in a more serious and far-reaching way – is Joseph Bologne, who, until recently was regularly referred to as “the black Mozart”. Bologne (1745-99)’s extraordinary life is explored in Chevalier, a new film that is a cross between Amadeus (1984), Marie Antoinette (2006) and Bridgerton (2020-). 

The frothier aspects of Bologne’s adventures are there – bleary-eyed bed-hopping, with sexy and subtly anachronistic period costumes – but so is the oppressive prejudice that enveloped the composer’s life, ultimately leading to his erasure from history. Born to a wealthy white plantation owner father and an enslaved black mother, Bologne quickly demonstrated prodigious talent. He was installed at a French academy – taken against his mother’s will in the film portrayal – where he became a champion fencer, violinist and composer, attracting the attention of Marie Antoinette who gave him the title ‘Chevalier de Saint-Georges’. 

The biopic opens with a Hendrix-Clapton style on-stage duel between Mozart and Bologne, with virtuosic cadenzas marking Bologne as the clear winner. The music is fractionally ahead of its time, a bit like Marty McFly’s guitar solo at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance in the first Back to the Future (1985) film. It doesn’t matter – it’s a vehicle to cover more important issues: “Who the fuck is that?” explodes Mozart; we wonder the same. 

Bologne’s identity – caught between privileged courtly circles and domestic servitude – is heightened with the arrival of his mother. “You are a tourist in their world,” she warns, as Bologne puts on a white curled wig. Sadly, this painful observation is prescient. As the French revolution draws closer, Bologne falls from favour and the German composer Gluck is selected as the director of Paris Opera. “May your name live on forever and ever,” coos Antoinette. 

Indeed, while Gluck is immortalised in history – a fixture in concert halls and recordings – Bologne was virtually deleted. When Napoleon reinstated slavery after the revolution, he banned Bologne’s music and it subsequently faded from memory. Thanks to enterprising musicians – such as Rachel Barton Pine, who founded Music by Black Composers in 2001 – and projects like Chevalier, restoration is in progress. 

Reconnaissance album cover

Listen to… Reconnaissance

When Kaija Saariaho’s school-shooting opera Innocence (2018) received its UK premiere earlier this year, fans were pleased to see the Finnish composer in attendance, but saddened to witness her frailty. A short time later, she passed away, age 70, recognised as a titan in contemporary music and a pioneer for female composers. Saariaho’s works for choir, a cappella and with electronics are to be released on Reconnaissance, a compilation album, including the additionally poignant Nuits, Adieux, a lullaby for the end of life.

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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