Composers of Color 1: Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) – There is no other composer quite like this one. Music is only part of his extraordinary life! Born in Guadeloupe to a planter and his mistress slave, Saint-Georges was taken to Paris at age 7 to get the best education possible in high French society. The title Chevalier comes from being made an officer in the court of Louis XV in 1766. He was a boxer, a runner, good ice skater, and one of/if not the best, fencers in Europe. His involvement in the French revolution and the abolition movement is well documented. He created an all black regiment which saw heavy fighting fending off the Austrians at the battle of Lille in 1792. As a civilian there were two attempts on his life, and both times he was able to fend off multiple attackers. After all, he did have a few good moves in his fencing repertoire.
As a revolutionary who had ties to the king’s court, Saint-Georges was thrown in jail in 1793 and awaited the guillotine. A sympathetic commissioner rescued him a year later. He spent the last few years of his life trying to win back his commission (unsuccessfully) and building a new orchestra. “Toward the end of my life, I was particularly devoted to my violin…never did I play it so well!”
As a musician and composer, Saint-Georges rose through the ranks quickly. First, as a violinist in the top Paris orchestra (Concert des Amateurs), then as its soloist and leader. During this time in the 1770s he wrote 14 violin concertos. Here is the sublime Adagio from Opus 3 #1.
He also created the sinfonie concertante form, basically a concerto for two or more soloists of equal calibre. Here is a movement from Opus 8 #2, composed in 1778 for two violins and orchestra.
Though there is no documentation of Saint-Georges and Mozart having met or spoken, history tells us otherwise. They spent two months under the same roof after Mozart’s mother died and he needed a place in Paris to stay. A year later in 1779 Mozart wrote his Sinfonie Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra. There is no doubt that Saint-Georges’s concertante (from above) inspired him. Take note of the ending of Mozart’s work (5:48) and then compare it to the ending of Saint-Georges’s (at 9:15). The climactic rising line in the soloists is identical!
Saint-Georges’s other musical accomplishments included the commission and premieres of Haydn’s 6 Paris Symphonies in 1786, with himself conducting the Concert de la Loge Olympique. He was also offered the directorship of the Paris Opera in 1776. Three divas in the company, however, petitioned against the hiring because of his race. To avoid any awkwardness with his good friend Queen Marie Antoinette, Saint-Georges took himself out of the running. There were no other candidates vying for the position. Such was the tragic nature of Saint-Georges’s life. He could never marry even though he had all the perks of aristocratic living. He was very popular in the public eye. When he died of a bladder infection in 1799, slavery had been abolished for 5 years. Yet when Napoleon reimposed slavery in 1802 Chevalier de Saint-George’s name became expunged from the history books. His music would not be resurrected for almost two centuries.
For more on this remarkable hero, here is a tasteful enactment of his life with music and commentary.
Explore the list of online Salons.