It took the combined talent of composers Kris Bowers and Michael Abels to help filmmaker Stephen Williams ensure Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ music lives on after his life story was erased from the history books.
Williams’ new film, “Chevalier” tells the story of the illegitimate son of a plantation owner and slave. Played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chevalier is a promising young Black musician who excels at fencing, playing the violin and wooing the court of Marie Antoinette.
In dividing their tasks, Abels wrote the music for the on-camera performances while Bowers composed the film’s score.
Speaking with Variety, Abels says, “Each [on-camera] performance piece needed to feel authentic to the scene that you see it in.” Whether it was weaving in a Mozart element, hints of Bologne’s compositions, or pieces from the opera “Ernestine,” which Chevalier is working on. He adds, “At the same time, we are portraying Joseph as a modern person whose story speaks to us today.”
For the film’s opening scene introducing the talents of Bologne to the French upper class via a violin showdown with Mozart, Abels had to begin with the legendary composer’s “Violin Concerto No. Five” because that’s “what the character is asked to play.” Says Abels, “But Joseph shows up and outplays him. It was important to write in the style of Joseph, which was classical, but also showy.”
As that scene evolves and they go back and forth with solos, Abels explains, “The Joseph solos take on a modern, Jimi-Hendrix style tone so the music reflects what we’d expect to hear in that situation.”
Williams was specific with how he wanted the score and music to exist; there needed to be a distinction.
Bowers studied Bologne’s music, learning his melodies, and transcribing violin motifs, riffs and themes. Says Bowers, “I started with cues that felt as if they were inspired by and stemmed from his music while figuring out how to modernize that sound.” He adds, “There were times when I would write cues and he felt the way I was pacing it was getting ahead of the moment, so Stephen pushed for me to be patient.”
Using character themes, Bowers pieced his score together.
He says, “There’s a slave hymn that Michael and music supervisor Maggie Rodford discovered in one of Joseph’s pieces, and it’s this little moment where the melody theme stands out. So, [in the film], it’s this piece his mother hums to him as a child and that becomes his fight for justice by the end of the film.”
Joseph’s mother Nanon’s (Ronke Adekoluejo) theme was born from the notion of longing and reconnection. In the film, the two share a tender exchange. Says Bowers, “This is an emotional moment. There’s a lot of happiness in being reconnected. But for Joseph, there’s anger and disappointment and his feelings of being abandoned.” He adds, “But as she’s braiding his hair and talking about what Black people have been through, in my mind, that’s where that theme is being handed to him in a way.”
Bologne also embarks on a love affair with singing protégé Marie-Josephine played by Samara Weaving. “I looked at tragic love stories. I thought about Romeo and Juliet, and the darkness to those emotional love themes,” says Bowers.
He had to strike a balance and not lean towards something that was too dark for this doomed love affair. “It was about encapsulating those feelings that they felt for one another, without it being too dark or too sweet and lovey.”
Marie-Jospheine’s thematic instrument was a piano (a grand piano that had been felted) while Bowers gave Bologne a cello. “When they first meet, there’s this duet between the piano and cello, and it’s straightforward. It’s a softer, rounder and warmer sound.” This mirrored their blossoming love, but as their relationship gets intense, “an icy high violin comes in, and the cello becomes scratchier.”