Home > Reviews > CHEVALIER – Kris Bowers and Michael Abels

CHEVALIER – Kris Bowers and Michael Abels

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Think of a classical composer. Any classical composer. What sort of face springs to mind? White. Male. Middle Aged. Some sort of imposing hairdo, probably a beard. Formal clothes. A facial expression that combines seriousness with intelligence. It’s the sort of face we’ve all seen for hundreds of years, from Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms, to Tchaikovsky and beyond. It’s what we’re all accustomed to seeing and thinking of when western classical music is mentioned. However, the truth is that there is, and has always been, more diversity than that, both in terms of gender and race, but most of the music of non-white non-male composers was overlooked and, at times, intentionally suppressed in the past, to the point that today very few of us know, and can name, any composers outside those gender-based and race-based confines. This new movie, Chevalier, attempts to redress some of that a little.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was an 18th-century musician, who became a prominent figure in French history. He was born in 1745 on the island of Guadeloupe to a wealthy white plantation owner, George Bologne de Saint-Georges, and his black African slave, Nanon. At a young age, Saint-Georges moved to France with his father, where he eventually became a virtuoso violinist and composer, as well as an accomplished fencer and equestrian, and he quickly gained recognition in Parisian society. He soon began composing his own works – symphonies, concertos, and chamber music – some of which demonstrated a unique blend of classical and African-inspired elements. However, predictably, Saint-Georges faced racial prejudice and discrimination from his peers and from the aristocracy, including being denied positions in major orchestras. This film, which is directed by Stephen Williams, follows this period in Saint-Georges’s life; it stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the title role, who is supported by Samara Weaving, Marton Csokas, Lucy Boynton as Marie Antoinette, and Minnie Driver in a scenery-chewing turn as Marie-Madeleine Guimard, the bitter and spiteful prima ballerina of the Paris Opera.

The soundtrack for Chevalier features selections of the film’s original score by composer Kris Bowers, plus several of Saint-Georges’s classical works produced and arranged by composer Michael Abels, as well as additional pieces by classical composers of the time. It’s an authentic take on the style, blended with some more modern approaches, and will really appeal to anyone whose tastes run towards the classical. It’s interesting how Kris Bowers has become a composer who often works on period pieces; his score for the hit TV series Bridgerton, as well as it’s recent spin-off Queen Charlotte, show him to have a real sensibility for re-capturing the musical essence of that time period, and Chevalier is very much the same – although, of course, the stylistic influences here are less Regency England and more pre-Revolution France.

Perhaps the one drawback of the score is its lack of prominent thematic content. There are recurring themes – several of them in fact – but none of them stood out to me as being especially memorable, and instead it seems as though Bowers concentrates more on textures and moods than identifiable melodic ideas. This is perhaps a rather unfortunate byproduct of the fact that so much of Saint-Georges’s real classical work takes center stage in the film itself, leaving Bowers with little to do other than plug the emotional gaps in the story without overshadowing the music that is the film’s actual focus.

Music relating to Saint-Georges’s excellence, his passion, his creativity, and the flamboyance of Parisian life are conveyed with writing for flashing, ostentatious violin work, performed in a rich classical style. Cues like the “Main Title,” “Awarded Chevalier,” and the superb “Composing the Finale” are excellent examples of this – vibrant, energetic, and determined. There is also a rather more modern-sounding action cue that emphasizes Saint-Georges’s skilles as a fencer in “Fencing Duel” which features pensive rhythmic ostinatos backed by darting string runs but which at times is unexpectedly contemporary.

More thoughtful writing for pianos and subtle electronic textures address the darker and more personal elements of Saint-Georges’s life – his memories of his childhood on a slave plantation, his experiences with blatant racism in Paris, and the agonizing choices he must make as a result. There is a great deal of this in the second half of the first cue, “Arrival at Polytechnic,” and then later cues like “A Letter Came for You – Nanon” are more low key, with a touch of bittersweet, while things like “Now I’m Only a Negro,” “The Only Home I Knew,” and “Choices Come from Within,” are at times downright morose. Some of this music is based on an old slave hymn that music supervisor Maggie Rodford discovered in one of Saint-Georges’s classical pieces; his mother hums it to him as a child, and the melody of that piece eventually becomes a theme representing his fight for justice.

The romantic relationship that develops between Saint-Georges and Marie-Josephine de Montalembert, the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat, is embodied by “The Kiss,” a romantic, elegant piano piece combined with gorgeous sweeping cello writing. “We’ll Find a Desert Island” is related to the romance theme, but is a little tortured, a little sad, and depicts the more difficult part of their relationship – specifically Marie-Josephine’s father Marc René, the Marquis de Montalembert, who strenuously disapproves of their liaison on racial grounds. The finale of the score in “The Queen Is Here – You Will Be Erased” opens with more of that flashy, intense, rhythmic music, and is framed in the same style as the fencing cue from earlier in the score, cleverly drawing parallels between Saint-Georges’s swordfighting duels and his antagonistic relationship with Queen Marie-Antoinette; the grinding electronica and galloping percussion gives the whole thing an increased intensity, and it builds through a crescendo to a revelatory finale.

It’s perhaps a little disappointing that none of Saint-Georges’s classical works made their way into Bowers’s score, even as an easter egg, but that was actually a direct request from director Stephen Williams, who wanted a distinct separation between the two. As such, all the classical work was arranged and produced by composer Michael Abels, and it’s all quite outstanding. Two of the three original Abels cues – “Sinfonie Liberté Part 1 & 2” and “Soul of an Artist”– are by turns gorgeous, dramatic, and sweeping, and often showcase outstanding solo violin performances, while “Dansons Pour La Vie” is an authentic Afro-Caribbean folk song steeped in Saint-Georges’s cultural heritage.

The “Violin Duel” underscores a pivotal scene where Saint-Georges is asked to take part in a ‘violin showdown’ with none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself, and Abels adapted the legendary composer’s “Violin Concerto No.5” for performance on-screen. The Saint-Georges pieces used throughout the film are the “Violin Concerto in G Major,” the “String Quartet in D Major,” and the “String Quartet in E-Flat Major,” as well as an excerpt from his 1777 opera “Ernestine,” and they are of course excellent also, and really underline why he was held in such high esteem in his lifetime.

Chevalier is an excellent soundtrack, a superb mix of outstanding classical music from the period, and new original score which takes elements and influences from the period and blends it with more contemporary elements to first-rate effect. The solo violin performances – especially those by featured virtuoso Randall Goosby – are sensational, but I will offer a word of caution by saying that Bowers’s original music does play second fiddle (pun intended) to the classical selections, and is more muted in terms of its clearly recognizable thematic content. With that in mind, this still gets a recommendation from me as an excellent musical tribute – and long overdue acknowledgement – to this pioneer of black classical music.

Buy the Chevalier soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Violin Concerto in G Major, Op. 8, No. 2: I. Allegro (written by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, arr. Michael Abels) (9:59)
  • Sinfonie Liberté Part 1 & 2 (written by Michael Abels) (3:19)
  • Main Title – Arrival at Polytechnic (1:07)
  • Fencing Duel (2:15)
  • Awarded Chevalier (1:20)
  • Violin Duel (written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, arr. Michael Abels) (3:31)
  • A Letter Came for You – Nanon (2:34)
  • It’s Called Ernestine (1:27)
  • The Kiss (1:28)
  • Soul of an Artist (written by Michael Abels) (1:22)
  • Scena from Ernestine (written by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, arr. Michael Abels) (2:25)
  • Now I’m Only a Negro (2:42)
  • The Only Home I Knew (1:48)
  • We’ll Find a Desert Island (2:04)
  • Not a Queen of France (4:57)
  • Flowers Through Church (3:42)
  • Choices Come from Within (4:09)
  • Composing the Finale (1:28)
  • Egalité (1:20)
  • Dansons Pour La Vie (written by Michael Abels) (1:38)
  • My Child (1:49)
  • The Queen Is Here – You Will Be Erased (2:05)
  • O Cessate Di Piagarmi from Il Pompeo (written by Alessandro Scarlatti, arr. Michael Abels) (1:10)
  • String Quartet in D Major, Op. 1, No. 6: Rondeau (written by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, arr. Michael Abels) (2:23)
  • String Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 1, No. 2: Rondeau (written by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, arr. Michael Abels) (1:25)
  • Violin Concerto in G Major, Op. 8, No. 2: I: Allegro (Quartet Version) (written by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, arr. Michael Abels) (2:34)

Running Time: 66 minutes 01 seconds

Hollywood Records (2023)

Music composed by Kris Bowers. Conducted by Terry Davies. Orchestrations by Sean Barrett, Jonathan Beard, Benjamin Hoff, Jamie Thierman, Edward Trybek and Henri Wilkinson. Classical music arranged and produced by Michael Abels. Recorded and mixed by Kirsty Whalley. Edited by Andrew Glen, Tommy Lockett, and Lewis Morison. Album produced by Kris Bowers.

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