Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George

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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 ...

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Born in Guadeloupe, Joseph Boulogne was the son of a black slave and a white plantation owner of French nobility. When Joseph's family moved to France, he enrolled in school and, despite facing racial prejudice, devoted himself to mastering the violin, which he first learned to play on the plantation. In his lifetime, Joseph composed six operas (as well as other pieces of music), stood before audiences on the same stages as Mozart, and performed before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Ransome's mixed-media paintings join tropical motifs with the sumptuous colors and prints of affluent Paris society, and his faces glow with vitality. Readers will likely marvel at why such a compelling figure has not received more attention. Ages 5–9. (Jan.)
Children's Literature - Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
Joseph Boulogne is born on a sugar plantation on Guadeloupe in 1739, the son of the white plantation owner and his black slave. Joseph enjoys privileges other slaves do not have, walking the land with his father and traveling to town with his mother. He learns to play the violin. When he is nine, his now wealthy father returns to Paris with the family. His mother, now free, lives on the outskirts of the city, while Joseph continues his studies living with his father. Although as a mulatto he cannot inherit his father's title and is frequently taunted, Joseph enjoys the life of the son of a duke. He becomes a champion fencer. But at twenty-one, Joseph is given an Amati violin and decides to devote his life to music. He becomes first violin of an orchestra. He also composes operas, quartets, and concerti. Mozart attends one of his concerts. Finally, as the midwife had predicted at his birth, he performs for the king and queen of France. Ransome uses mixed media to cover double pages with naturalistic pictures of the landscapes and cityscapes of both Guadeloupe and Paris. Attention is given, as in the jacket/cover portrait, to details of dress as well. Notable is the scene of his arrival at the palace by coach with the setting sun illuminating the royal courtyard. A note adds factual information to that conveyed in the illustrations. This is an important addition to African American history. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
Kirkus Reviews

In the spirit of their earlier collaboration (Young Pele: Soccer's First Star, 2007) the husband-and-wife team introduce readers to the life of a relative unknown: Joseph Boulogne, often known as "the Black Mozart."Boulonge was born on a plantation in the West Indies, the son of a Frenchman and a young Senegalese slave. Joseph was acknowledged and raised by both his parents, and his father encouraged his musical education in the Caribbean and Paris, where he became a darling of the French nobility. Despite the overt racism of pre-revolutionary France, he triumphed by dint of dedication and prodigious talent. James Ransome's rich, brushy strokes of vivid color expand the engaging text even as they evoke both the lush landscapes of the Caribbean and glittering candlelit interiors. The book's title is a bit of a puzzle. How many picture-book readers are familiar enough with the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to grasp that the life and impressive career of this Afro-Caribbean-French musical prodigy actually began before the sensation from Salzburg? That quibble notwithstanding, this is a story that needed to be told.(Picture book/biography. 5-9)

School Library Journal
Gr 3–5—Saint-George was a contemporary of Mozart, and though the two apparently never met, they did perform on alternating evenings at the same Paris concert hall. In elegant prose and handsome paintings, the book recounts the rise to European fame of a talented boy from the West Indies. A short opening "movement" tells of Boulogne's birth to his slave mother on his French father's Guadalupe plantation. "Nanon closed her eyes in a prayer of thanks as she heard the midwife predict, 'One day this boy will meet the king and queen of France.'" "The "Second Movement" describes the fine education given the bright boy, the lively shipping port near the plantation, and the family's departure for France when Joseph was nine. His arrival in Paris and growth into a musical protégé make up the longest of the three movements, and the "Finale" fulfills the midwife's prediction as Joseph plays at Versailles for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Cline-Ransome summarizes the remaining 25 years of the chevalier's life in an afterword. Though the text describes Saint-George's work as violinist, conductor, and composer along with a recent honor accorded him in Paris, there's no mention of where readers might find information about him or hear his works. The colorful views of island life and of Europe provide a fine sense of the historical milieu, and the author reminds readers that though "not everyone was pleased to see a man of color, freshly powdered and bewigged, conducting a group of white musicians, all had to admit that his talents were magnifique." Saint-George's impressive accomplishments expand our understanding of music and human history, and librarians and teachers will find varied ways to introduce him to children.—Margaret Bush, Simmons College, Boston
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375836008
  • Publisher: Random House Children's Books
  • Publication date: 1/25/2011
  • Pages: 40
  • Age range: 5 - 9 Years
  • Lexile: 1110L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.20 (w) x 11.10 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

LESA CLINE-RANSOME is the author of highly acclaimed picture book biographies, including Young Pelé: Soccer's First Star, called "stirring" in a starred review from Booklist; Satchel Paige, an ALA Notable Book about an African American baseball hero; Major Taylor: Champion Cyclist, about an African American cyclist; and Helen Keller: The World in Her Heart. Visit her at www.lesaclineransome.com.

JAMES E. RANSOME is the illustrator of many award-winning titles, including Young Pelé: Soccer's First Star, a finalist for the NAACP Image Awards; Satchel Paige; and Major Taylor: Champion Cyclist. He is also the illustrator of Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building by Deborah Hopkinson, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor title and an ALA Notable Book; Creation, which won a Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration; and Let My People Go by Patricia C. McKissack, winner of an NAACP Image Award. Visit him at www.jamesransome.com.

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