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Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de…

by Lesa Cline-Ransome

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This is the story of Joseph Boulogne, the son of a white West Indies plantation owner and a black slave. It is a great book to use to explore the issue of slavery and the many facets of it. An extremely unique story and nicely illustrated, though nothing innovative- the focus is the story. ( )
  marcheisler | Jan 29, 2014 |
An engaging picture-book biography of the eighteenth-century musician, composer and revolutionary, Joseph Boulogne, Before There Was Mozart sets out the story of this talented man, from his childhood on the tiny island of Guadalupe (part of the Leeward Islands), through his adolescence and young adulthood in Paris, where he studied music, and slowly gained the public (and royal) recognition that he deserved. His life was complicated by his status as a person of mixed race - his father was an aristocratic Frenchman (who gave him his title, Chevalier de Saint-George), and his mother a Wolof woman, originally from Senegal, and formerly a slave on his father's sugar cane plantation - and he had to struggle against the racial prejudices of his day, in making a place for himself in French society and culture. The narrative concludes with his triumphant first appearance at the royal palace of Versailles, where his virtuosic performance won him the patronage of Marie Antoinette, while the remainder of his life - his role in the French Revolution, his fight against slavery - is detailed in the brief afterword.

Informative and engrossing, Before There Was Mozart is a book that highlights the life story of a celebrated eighteenth-century musical figure who deserves to be better known today. I had heard Saint-George's name before, but really knew nothing about him, so I was glad to be able to correct that omission, although I would have liked to learn a little bit more about his later life as well. The artwork, done by James E. Ransome, is as engaging as the text, with a light-filled quality that I found very appealing. The only thing I didn't like about this book, as it happens, is the title. There's something a little cheap about the Mozart comparison - and Cline-Ransom isn't the only one to do this, as seen by another picture-book biography, The Other Mozart: The Life of the Chevalier Saint-George, or the recording, Le Mozart Noir - as it seems to imply that Saint-George's brilliance can only be established by comparison to his more well-known fellow composer. Leaving that issue aside, this is a book I would recommend to young music lovers, particularly those interested in the life stories of lesser known participants in the western European art music tradition. For my part, I finished it with a desire to become better acquainted with Saint-George's music, particularly his violin concertos! ( )
  AbigailAdams26 | Apr 25, 2013 |
A handsomely illustrated introduction to the son of a white plantation owner and black slave who goes from the West Indies to France to become one of the most admired classical musicians and composers of his time. Although he was a contemporary of Mozart and lived a life of amazing achievements (especially given his mixed-race), it seems a little misleading to suggest that his accomplishments in classical music are as significant as Mozart's. Compare this book with another biography for children, The Other Mozart: The Life of the Chevalier Saint-George by Hugh Brewster. ( )
  Sullywriter | Apr 3, 2013 |
The nonfiction book entitled Before There was Mozart – The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George is a beautiful short story about the life of a boy who was the son of a French nobleman and a slave woman, was born on one of the islands of Guadeloupe in the West Indies, and grew up to become one of the greatest classical musicians in all of Europe. I have to admit that the title of this book caught my eye because I am a huge fan of Mozart’s music and wanted to know who was the one who came before him. This informational picture book is not only charmingly written, but displays stunning illustrations that merge perfectly with the text. It is a book that contains approximately 32 pages of insightful information about Joseph Boulogne which may be read and appreciated by children between the ages of 9 and 13, in my opinion. As an adult, however, I too found this book to be very entertaining, as well as educational because, I hate to admit it, but I had never heard of this talented 18th century musician.

In summary, Joseph Boulogne was born on Christmas morning in 1739 in the Guadeloupe area of the West Indies. His father, Guillaume-Pierre Tavernier de Boullongne was a wealthy, sugar plantation owner who had come to this part of the world to make his fortune before returning to his native country of France. Although it was taboo at the time, he had fallen in love with one of his female slaves named Nanon who had been captured from her African home of Senegal and was forced into slavery. Her fate was blessed, however, when Guillaume-Pierre came into her life and treated her with love and kindness, and they, in turn were blessed with their son Joseph. On the day of his birth, the midwife predicted that this boy would one day meet the king and queen of France.

Nanon and Joseph did not work in the sugarcane fields like the other slaves on the plantation. They lived in the main house with Guillaume-Pierre. Joseph played with the other slave children, but he was not considered one of them. He loved to observe the beautiful, natural surroundings of his home and spent a lot of time with his father. Joseph also had a love of music and often traveled into the town of Basse-Terre with his mother as she conducted her errands in order to listen to all of the varieties of music that people played who came into this port from around the world.

Joseph was tutored by Monsieur Plato, the plantation’s overseer who also introduced his pupil to the violin. With practice, Joseph became quite proficient with the instrument and his beautiful music filled the air around the plantation. At the age of nine, Joseph’s father decided to return to Paris by ship and he and Nanon went with him. Guillaume-Pierre told his son that Europe would open doors for him and that he should take advantage of every opportunity that presented itself. Nanon was hopeful because she was now free from slavery. In celebration of the new life ahead, Joseph took out his violin and played on the ship’s deck as they sailed the open ocean of the Atlantic.

Upon arriving in Paris, Joseph admired the beautiful architecture and extravagant horse-drawn carriages of this huge cosmopolitan city. He also noticed how many blacks worked alongside whites, which was a sign that he could possibly have more opportunities than back home. Nanon lived in an apartment on the outskirts of the city in an area called Montmartre, while Joseph and his father lived in the fashionable district of Paris called Place des Victoires, so that he could continue his studies. Guillaume-Pierre hoped that his noble heritage would be advantageous to his son who everyone knew was half-black. French law, however, prevented him from passing down an aristocratic name to Joseph, so his father decided to give his son the name of a knight, which was the lowest form of nobility, but was better than nothing. He then named his son Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George which was a name that represented a variation of the family’s name and plantation, along with the rank of a knight.

Joseph experienced some of the finest educational institutions that Paris had to offer. He was enrolled at the Tuileries riding school, La Boessiere’s fencing school, and the French Violin School where he was the top ranking student in each of his classes. Although Joseph was talented at what he did and even rivaled some of his teachers, he was at times ridiculed because of his skin color. His mother would try to calm him by telling him that he may be the son of a white nobleman, but he was also the son of a black woman. Even with this obstacle against him, many Parisians loved to hear the talented “American” play his violin. Because of this, Joseph was often invited to balls and soirees which his mother was not allowed to attend. When he visited her, however, he would relive the events for her, so that she too could experience some of what her son was encountering in his life.

For his twenty-first birthday, Joseph was given a beautiful and expensive violin made by Nicolo Amati and he then decided that he would devote his life to music. His father hired two masters, Messieurs Jean-Marie Leclair and Joseph Gossec to teach his son to be a fine violinist. Joseph was trained to reach inside of himself in order for the audience to feel what he felt as he played his music. Joseph was an excellent protégé and news of his extreme talent started to spread throughout France. He began playing alongside his teacher Gossec in an orchestra called Le Concert des Amateurs and in salons throughout Paris. He moved up the ranks to first violin and timekeeper and conducted a group of white musicians who did not mind the color of his skin because they all admitted that his talents were magnificent.

Soon, Joseph’s music became so popular that Les Amateurs moved to the Hotel de Soubise in the center of Paris. Wealthy patrons from the Marais area came to hear this great violinist and often wiped tears from their eyes as they listened to the glorious sounds that emanated from Joseph’s instrument. It seemed that the violin had feelings of its own as Joseph used a technique he invented called deux symphonies concertantes in which one hand was placed high on the instrument’s strings and other vehemently bowing. This produced a burst of notes that seemed to fight against the rest of the orchestra, allowing Joseph’s music to take center stage.

While performing in his concerts, Joseph also began composing his own operas, quartets, concertos and ariettas. During one particular recital, an avid fan sat among the crowd, listening intently to the unusual melody. Inspired, this spectator, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart returned to Vienna ready to write his Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major for violin and viola. Within months, posters announcing Joseph’s upcoming events were placed next to advertisements promoting Mozart’s performances and both men played to packed houses on alternating nights. Although they each admired the other’s music, they sadly never met or corroborated on any works together. Soon, however, news of Joseph’s talents made it to the king and queen of France and the midwife’s prediction on the day he was born had come true. Joseph arrived at the palace and played into the night for Louis the Sixteenth, Marie Antoinette, and their royal court. When he finished playing his last note, silence filled the room as everyone turned to the queen for her response. She immediately praised Joseph and the room then filled with applause. He would be invited back on numerous occasions to perform at the palace at Versailles and would also go on to write fourteen concertos, nine symphonies, eighteen string quartets, and six operas.

As the French Revolution began in 1789, Joseph served as a colonel in a regiment of black soldiers called la Legion Saint-George who fought for liberty, freedom, and justice. After being falsely accused of misappropriation of funds, he was imprisoned for eighteen months in which he barely escaped the guillotine. He spent the last years of his life fighting to abolish slavery back in the colonies where he was born. He died in 1799 at the age of sixty and little is known about what happened to his parents. In 2001 the city of Paris honored Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George by dedicating a street in his honor.

In terms of accuracy, the authors’ qualifications do not include their educational experience at the back of the book, however, what is noted is a list of numerous other nonfiction books they have written and illustrated together. James E. Ransome in particular is also the recipient of the NAACP Image Award and the Coretta Scott King Award. Before There Was Mozart – The True Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George was also published in 2011, which leads the reader to believe that the most current information was included in this book.

The content includes a scope that is focused on the main character’s life. The book talks about Joseph Boulogne’s birth, life as the son of a French nobleman and former slave, his musical accomplishments, his service in the French Revolution, fight to end slavery, and finally his death. The depth of this story is one that is not too deep because the authors are targeting a younger audience. Only the major highlights of Joseph’s life are presented. The focus, however, is straight forward and to the point because Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome’s goal is to introduce this rather unknown half-black person to the world and to inform readers that he was a musician who many considered to be just as talented as Mozart. The fact that Mozart learned from Joseph Boulogne is fascinating in and of itself. The authors also want the reader to realize that even though this person fought against racial prejudice throughout his life; his talent, father’s position and wealth, and his Parisian home offered him opportunities that he would not have otherwise received if he lived elsewhere.

The authors’ style is quite sophisticated for this young audience, in my opinion. Many French words are used throughout the text, and without any knowledge of this language it makes it a little difficult to pronounce and understand these words. Therefore, language accessibility may pose a small challenge to readers. Lesa and James Ransome do explain many of the terms, however, especially if the French words refer to a place or location. The language used is also very vivid and descriptive, allowing the reader to picture in his or her mind the sights and sounds of the events taking place. The ideas presented are done so in a logical order with the events being told in the order in which they occurred. The authors’ tone is also one that mimics that of a conversationalist as they tell the story of Joseph Boulogne’s life.

The organization is one that follows a chronological structure, but is done so in more of a story narrative fashion as the authors tell the reader what is taking place. Some aspects of the story could also be considered to be sequential in nature, as well, because of the order in which events transpire. Many unfamiliar words are introduced, but as I mentioned previously, are usually explained by the authors.

Very few reference aids are present in this book. Five chapters are evident and are uniquely and charmingly titled with musical terminology, such as First Movement, Second Movement, etc. Because this book is more of an informational picture book for a rather young audience, some of the other types of reference aids are not needed. A glossary, however, of unfamiliar French words would have been useful, but was not available. Also a pronunciation guide would have been extremely helpful when reading the French words within the book.

The format was absolutely wonderful with gorgeous illustrations that please the eye and help the reader to better relate to what the authors are saying within the text. Each picture fully compliments its verbal description. The cover itself pulls the reader in to want to know more about who this young, black child is holding a violin with the title above his head stating Before There Was Mozart…The back cover also leads the reader to believe that this person of mixed race will accomplish great things in his life regardless of his skin color.

Other access features include an end page on the inside front cover that reveals a glimpse of who Joseph Boulogne was and perhaps the obstacles he had to endure as the son of a wealthy white man and a former black slave woman. The Authors’ Note section at the back of the book reveals more details in Joseph’s life that was not highlighted within the story, but is worth mentioning because it tells more about his achievements, service to his country, struggles, activism, and death.

As a future middle school English teacher I will be certified to teach 4-8 grades and chose this book because of the intriguing title, beautiful illustrations, and quality of text that I feel would be appropriate and worth exposing to my students whose ages could range from 9 to 13. As an adult, I learned a great deal from this book about a man I once never knew existed, so I know that my students would become enlightened, as well. This book could be used by my students as the beginning stage of gathering information on Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George. The lesson that I could design and teach would require students to conduct further research on this person, write a report or expository essay about his life, and perhaps find examples of his recorded music to play for the rest of the class. ( )
  cdaugher | Mar 6, 2013 |
Before there was Mozart: The story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome

The Text: This is a biography of the little-known musical genius who became popular shortly before Mozart and shared his musical talent, although the two men never met. Boulogne fought against prejudice against his illegitimate birth, skin color, and lack of status to become a famous violin player, conductor, and finally play before the king and queen of France.

The Illustrations: The mixed media illustrations are serviceable, but without distinction. The facial expressions are generally cheerful and the clothing and hairstyles appropriate for the time period.

The Extras: An author's note at the back summarizes the little information known about Joseph Boulogne and his life after playing before the French royal family.

The Verdict: I found this story interesting, although I'm not a fan of the music of Mozart's day (I prefer Henry Purcell). However, other than the patron who asked for picture books on the great composers for his three year old, I've never run across a patron who was interested in Mozart or his contemporaries (other than "Baby Mozart" cds). Sometimes a biography of a more obscure personage will be picked up because of the illustrations, but these aren't eye-catching. Unless you have a large population of classical music enthusiasts, it's not worth purchasing.

ISBN: 978-0375836008; Published January 2011 by Schwartz & Wade; Borrowed from the library
  JeanLittleLibrary | Jan 15, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375836004, Hardcover)

The musical superstar of 18th-century France was Joseph Boulogne—a black man. This inspiring story tells how Joseph, the only child of a black slave and her white master, becomes "the most accomplished man in Europe." After traveling from his native West Indies to study music in Paris, young Joseph is taunted about his skin color. Despite his classmates' cruel words, he continues to devote himself to his violin, eventually becoming conductor of a whole orchestra. Joseph begins composing his own operas, which everyone acknowledges to be magnifique. But will he ever reach his dream of performing for the king and queen of France? This lushly illustrated book by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome introduces us to a talented musician and an overlooked figure in black history.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:05:43 -0400)

Short biography of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George, a mixed race violinist who would play for the King and Queen of France.

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