Chevalier de Saint-George: Known as the “Black Mozart”


 

Portrait of the Chevalier de Saint-George.

Joseph Bo(u)logne, Chevalier de Saint-George (sometimes erroneously spelled Saint-Georges) (December 25, 1745 – June 10, 1799) was an important figure in the Paris musical scene in the second half of the 18th century as composer, conductor, and violinist. Prior to the revolution in France, he was also famous as aswordsman and equestrian. Known as the “black Mozart”[1] he was one of the earliest musicians of the European classical type known to have African ancestry.

Youth

Joseph Bologne was born in Guadeloupe to Nanon, a Wolof former slave, and a white French plantationowner, Georges Bologne de Saint-George. Although his father called himself de Saint-George, after one of his properties, he was not born into the nobility. Some biographers have mistaken him for Pierre Tavernier-Boulogne, Controller-General of Finances, whose nobility dated back to the 15th century. The confusion surrounding the nobility of Saint-George’s father originated with Roger de Beauvoir’s novel of 1840 (“Le Chevalier de Saint-George”). However, Georges Bologne was not ennobled until 1757, when he acquired the title of Gentilhomme ordinaire de la chambre du roi, and noble rank was hereditary only for children born in wedlock.

In 1747 George Bologne was falsely accused of murder and fled to France with Nanon and her child to prevent their being sold. After two years he was granted a royal pardon and the family returned to Guadeloupe. In 1753, George took Joseph, who was then eight, to France permanently where he was enrolled in a privateacademy.

At the age of 13 Saint-George became a pupil of La Boëssière, a master of arms, and excelled in all physical exercises, especially fencing. When still a student, Saint-George beat Alexandre Picard, a fencing-master ofRouen, who had mocked him as ‘La Boëssière’s upstart mulatto’, and was rewarded by his father with a horse and buggy. He also studied literature and horseback riding, and became an exceptional violinist.

On 5 April 1762, King Louis XV decreed that people of color (blacks (nègres) and mulattos) must register with the clerk of the Admiralty within two months. Saint-George’s mother, Nanon, registered herself as age 34 at that time. On 10 May 1762, La Bossière registered Saint-George as “Joseph de Boulogne”.

On graduating at the age of 19, he was made a Gendarme de la Garde du Roi (member of the royal guard). After the end of the Seven Years’ War, George Bologne returned to his Guadeloupe plantations, leaving his son in France with a handsome annuity. The young chevalier became the darling of fashionable society; contemporary accounts speak of his romantic conquests. In 1766 the Italian fencer Giuseppe Faldoni came to Paris to challenge Saint-George. Faldoni won, but proclaimed Saint-George the finest swordsman in Europe.

Career

He studied music in Saint-Domingue with the black violinist Joseph Platon before emigrating to Paris in 1752. Platon would later play an unspecified Saint-George violin concerto at Port-au-Prince (Haiti) on April 25, 1780.

After 1764, works dedicated to him by Lolli and Gossec suggest that Gossec was his composition teacher and that Lolli taught him violin. Saint-George’s technical approach was similar to that of Gaviniés, who may also have taught him. In 1769 he became a member of Gossec’s new orchestra, the Concert des Amateurs, at theHôtel de Soubise, and was soon named its leader.

The Chevalier de Saint-George in a 1787 painting probably commissioned by the future George IV of the United Kingdom.

While still a young man, he acquired multiple reputations; as the best swordsman in France, as a violin virtuoso, and as a composer in theclassical tradition. He composed and conducted for the private orchestra and theatre of the Marquise de Montesson, morganatic wife of the King’s cousin, Louis Philippe I, Duke of Orléans. In 1771, he was appointed maestro of the Concert des Amateurs, and later director of the Concert de la Loge Olympique, the biggest orchestra of his time (65-70 musicians). This orchestra commissioned Joseph Haydn to compose six symphonies (the “Paris Symphonies” Nr. 82-87), which Saint-George conducted for their world premiere. In respect of his skill as both a composer and musician, he was selected for appointment as the director of the Royal Opera of Louis XVI. But this was prevented by three Parisian divas who petitioned the Queen in writing against the appointment, insisting that it would be beneath their dignity and injurious to their professional reputations for them to sing on stage under the direction of “a mulatto”. To spare St. George public humiliation, the King decreed that henceforth the position of director could only be filled by promotion from within the ranks of the orchestra.

Thwarted in his musical career, Saint-George earned fresh renown as a competitive fencer. He had already been dubbed “chevalier” by appreciative crowds at the Palais Royal. There is a famous portrait of him crossing swords in an exhibition match with the French transvestite spy-in-exile, the Chevalier d’Eon, in the presence of the Prince of Wales, Britain’s future king George IV.

Like many others associated with the aristocracy and the royal court at Versailles, Saint-George served in the army of the Revolution against France’s foreign enemies, although he is not known to have joined the domestic revolutionary struggle prior to the imprisonment of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Nonetheless, Saint-George would pay dearly for consenting to become the first black colonel of the French army, in its fight for the Revolution. He took command of a regiment of a thousand free colored volunteers, largely consisting of former slaves from the region of his birth. With these troops, he arrested General Miaczinski at Lille, thwarting the betrayal of General Dumouriez. Repeatedly denounced, however, because of his aristocratic parentage and past association with the royal court, Saint-George was dismissed from the army on September 25, 1793, accused of using public funds for personal gain. He was acquitted after spending 18 months in jail.

After the revolution, Saint-George continued to lead orchestras but, abandoned by his former patrons, his circumstances became straitened and his lifestyle bore little resemblance to that he enjoyed under the monarchy. Joseph de Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George died in 1799 at the age of 54. In the ensuing 200 years, he fell largely into obscurity.

Music

In 1787, Saint-George conducted the premières of Joseph Haydn’s six “Paris symphonies.” Marie-Antoinette had them performed several nights in a row, such that one of these symphonies, No. 85, was subtitled “The Queen,” in her honor.

Mozart stayed in Paris in 1778 during the time of Saint-George’s triumph.

Saint-George’s second opera, La Chasse (The Hunt, now lost), first performed on October 12, 1778, was enthusiastically received by the audience and the press alike.

Saint-George owed his fame as much to his virtuosity as to his compositions. His concertos attracted crowds to the Hôtel de Soubise (now the National Archives), and to performances by the Concert des Amateurs(eighty musicians), led by Saint-George. The composer’s operas (including one for which the libretto was written by Choderlos de Laclos) enjoyed undeniable popularity at the Italian Comedy. Saint-George’s qualities as a conductor were such that his orchestras were considered to be among the best in Europe.

Selected works

Saint-George wrote symphonies, roughly 25 concertos for violin and orchestra, string quartets, sonatas, and songs in the style of Mozart, Haydn and the composers of the “Mannheim school”. He also wrote at least five operas with a possible sixth opera, Le droit de seigneur, disputed among music scholars. Excerpts from his first opera, Ernestine, were also used in an opera pastiche, Recueil d’airs et duos, along with music by other composers.

G 2 String Quartet Op. 1 No. 1 in C major
G 3 String Quartet Op. 1 No. 2 in E flat major
G 4 String Quartet Op. 1 No. 3 in G minor
G 5 String Quartet Op. 1 No. 4 in C minor
G 6 String Quartet Op. 1 No. 5 in G minor
G 7 String Quartet Op. 1 No. 6 in D major
G 10 Violin Concerto Op. 1 No. 1 in D major
G 11 Violin Concerto Op. 1 No. 2 in C major
G 21 Violin Concerto Op. 1 No. 10 in D major
G 22 Violin Concerto Op. 1 No. 11 in G major
G 23 Symphony Concertante in E flat major
G 24 Symphony Concertante in G major
G 25 Violin Concerto Op. 2 No. 1 in G major
G 26 Violin Concerto Op. 2 No. 2 in D major
G 27 Violin Concerto Op. 3 No. 1 in D major
G 28 Violin Concerto Op. 3 No. 2 in A minor
G 29 Violin Concerto Op. 4 in D major
G 31 Violin Concerto Op. 5 No. 1 in C major
G 32 Violin Concerto Op. 5 No. 2 in A major
G 37 Symphony Concertante Op. 6 No. 1 in C major
G 38 Symphony Concertante Op. 6 No. 2 in B flat major
G 39 Violin Concerto Op. 7 No. 1 in A major
G 40 Violin Concerto Op. 7 No. 2 in B flat major
G 49 Symphony Concertante Op. 10 No. 2 in A major
G 50 Violin Concerto Op. 8 in G major
G 64 Symphony Concertante Op. 10 No. 1 in F major
G 65 Symphony Concertante Op. 9 No. 1 in C major
G 66 Symphony Concertante Op. 9 No. 2 in A major
G 67 String Quartet No. 7 in B flat major
G 68 String Quartet No. 8 in G minor
G 69 String Quartet No. 9 in C major
G 70 String Quartet No. 10 in F major
G 71 String Quartet No. 11 in G major
G 72 String Quartet No. 12 in B flat major
G 73 Symphony Op. 11 No. 1 in G major
G 74 Symphony Op. 11 No. 2 in D major
G 75 L’amant anonyme
G 76 Sonata for keyboard & violin in B flat major
G 77 Sonata for keyboard & violin in A major
G 78 Sonata for keyboard & violin in G minor
G 79 Harpsichord Sonata No. 3 in D major
G 80 Harpsichord Sonata No. 1 in C major
G 81 Harpsichord Sonata No. 5 in B flat major
G 82 Harpsichord Sonata No. 10 in F major
G 83 Harpsichord Sonata No. 4 in D major
G 84 Harpsichord Sonata No. 8 in D major
G 85 Harpsichord Sonata No. 2 in G minor
G 86 Harpsichord Sonata No. 6 in E flat major
G 87 Harpsichord Sonata No. 9 in D major
G 88 Harpsichord Sonata No. 11 in C major
G 89 Variations for keyboard & violin in G major
G 191 String Quartet Op. 14 No. 1 in D major
G 192 String Quartet Op. 14 No. 2 in B flat major
G 193 String Quartet Op. 14 No. 3 in F minor
G 194 String Quartet Op. 14 No. 4 in G major
G 195 String Quartet Op. 14 No. 5 in E flat major
G 196 String Quartet Op. 14 No. 6 in G minor
G 209 Violin Sonata Op. posth. 1 No. 1 in B flat major
G 210 Violin Sonata Op. posth. 1 No. 2 in E flat major
G 211 Violin Sonata Op. posth. 1 No. 3 in A major
G 212 Violin Sonata Op. posth. 1 No. 4
G 213 Violin Sonata Op. posth. 1 No. 5
G 214 Violin Sonata Op. posth. 1 No. 6
G 215 Violin Concerto Op. posth. 2 in D major

 

Operas

  • Ernestine (1777)
  • La partie de la chasse (1778)
  • La fille-garçon (1787)
  • Aline et Dupré (1788)
  • Guillaume tout coeur (1790)

 

Ballet

  • L’amant anonyme (1780)

 

Selected discography

  • AFKA 557 – Quartetto Concertans 1777

String Quartet No. 7 in B flat major – G 067
String Quartet No. 8 in G minor – G 068
String Quartet No. 9 in C major – G 069
String Quartet No.10 in F major – G 070
String Quartet No.11 in G major – G 071
String Quartet No.12 in B flat major – G 072
Coleridge String Quartet – String Quartet

  • Arion 55445 – Sonates pour violon

Sonata for keyboard & violin in A major – G 077
Variations for keyboard & violin in G major – G 089
Sonata for keyboard & violin in B flat major – G 076
Sonata for keyboard & violin in G minor – G 078
Kantorow, Jean-Jacques – Violin
Haudebourg, Brigitte – Harpsichord

  • Assai 222622 – Six quatuors à cordes Op. 14

String Quartet Op. 14 No.6 in G minor – G 196
String Quartet Op. 14 No.1 in D major – G 191
String Quartet Op. 14 No.3 in F minor – G 193
String Quartet Op. 14 No.4 in G major – G 194
String Quartet Op. 14 No.2 in B flat major – G 192
String Quartet Op. 14 No.5 in E flat major – G 195
Quatuor Atlantis – String Quartet

  • Avenira 9985 – Symphonies & Violin Concertos vol 1

Symphony Op. 11 No.2 in D major – G 074
Violin Concerto Op. 3 No.1 in D major – G 027
Violin Concerto Op. 1 No. 1 in D major – G 010
Violin Concerto Op. 2 No.2 in D major – G 026
Vilimec, Miroslav – Violin
Radio Symphony Orchestra Pilsen

  • Avenira 9986 – Symphonies & Violin Concertos vol 2

Violin Concerto Op. 8 in G major – G 050
Violin Concerto Op. 4 in D major – G 029
Violin Concerto Op. 2 No.1 in G major – G 025
Vilimec, Miroslav – Violin
Radio Symphony Orchestra Pilsen

  • Avenira 9987 – Symphonies & Violin Concertos vol 3

Symphony Concertante Op. 9 No.2 in A major – G 066
Violin Concerto Op. 5 No.1 in C major – G 031
Symphony Concertante in E flat major – G 023
Violin Concerto Op. 7 No.2 in B flat major – G 040
Vilimec, Miroslav – Violin
Radio Symphony Orchestra Pilsen

  • Avenira 9988 – Symphonies & Violin Concertos vol 4

Symphony Concertante Op. 10 No.1 in F major – G 064
Violin Concerto Op. 5 No.2 in A major – G 032
Symphony Concertante in G major – G 024
Violin Concerto Op. 1 No.10 in D major – G 021
Vilimec, Miroslav – Violin
Radio Symphony Orchestra Pilsen

  • Avenira 9989 – Symphonies & Violin Concertos vol 5

Symphony Concertante Op. 9 No.1 in C major – G 065
Violin Concerto Op. 3 No.2 in A minor – G 028
Symphony Concertante Op. 10 No.2 in A major – G 049
Violin Concerto Op. 1 No.11 in G major – G 022
Vilimec, Miroslav – Violin
Radio Symphony Orchestra Pilsen

  • BNL 112934 – Les 10 Sonates pour clavecin

Harpsichord Sonata No.11 in C major – G 088
Harpsichord Sonata No. 2 in G minor – G 085
Harpsichord Sonata No. 9 in D major – G 087
Harpsichord Sonata No. 3 in D major – G 079
Harpsichord Sonata No. 5 in B flat major – G 081
Harpsichord Sonata No. 1 in C major – G 080
Harpsichord Sonata No. 6 in E flat major – G 086
Harpsichord Sonata No. 4 in D major – G 083
Harpsichord Sonata No. 8 in D major – G 084
Harpsichord Sonata No.10 in F major – G 082
Robert, Anne – Harpsichord

  • CBC 5225 – Le Mozart Noir

Symphony Op. 11 No.1 in G major – G 073
L’amant anonyme – G 075
Violin Concerto Op. 3 No.1 in D major – G 027
with works by Leclair and Gossec
Tafelmusik
Lamon, Jeanne – Conductor

  • Naxos 8.555040 – Saint-Georges: Violin Concertos Op. 5, Nos. 1-2 and Op. 8

Cologne Chamber Orchestra, Helmut Mueller-Bruehl; Takako Nishizaki, violin

  • Naxos 8.557322 – Saint-Georges: Violin Concertos No. 1, Op. 3 and Nos. 2 and 10

Toronto Camerata, Kevin Mallon; Qian Zhou, violin

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevalier_de_Saint-Georges

 


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