In the 1780s, Joseph Bologne (1745–1799), moreover known by his well-bred title, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was one of the most prominent musicians in Paris, if not the whole of Europe. He was a prodigious violinist, composer, and usherette as well as a champion fencer and a decorated colonel who served in the French Revolution. In 1779, John Adams, who was then the United States’ producer to France, tabbed him “the most talented man in Europe.” Saint-Georges moreover vicarious and conducted the premieres of Haydn’s six “Paris” symphonies (1785–1786). So how does a composer this famous get forgotten by history?
The subtitle lies somewhere at the intersection of racism, the upturned produce of the French Revolution, and two centuries of inexplicable neglect. Born on Christmas Day in 1745 in the French colony of Guadeloupe, Joseph Bologne was the son of a wealthy French plantation owner, Georges Bologne, and his African slave, Nanon. In 1747, his father was falsely accused of murder and fled to France with Nanon and Joseph to prevent them from stuff sold. He was granted a royal pardon two years later and returned to Guadeloupe. He decided to move his family to Paris permanently in 1753, when Joseph was well-nigh seven years old.
A 22-year-old Chevalier de Saint-Georges by Eugène de Beaumont
No expense was spared on the boy’s education. He excelled in music and sport, particularly fencing. At 13, he began studying with fencing master Nicolas Texier de la Boëssière, soon besting the top swordsmen virtually the country and wideness Europe. Although little is known of his musical training, he likely studied sonnet with François-Joseph Gossec and violin with Antonio Lolli. At 19, he was made an officer of the royal baby-sit and dubbed Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
Fencing Match between St.-Georges and ‘La chevalière d’Éon’ by Abbé Alexandre-Auguste Robineau
In 1769, Saint-Georges was invited to join Gossec’s new peerage orchestra, the Concert des Amateurs, rhadamanthine the leader of the ensemble just four years later. His star rose quickly as he became known for his virtuosic violin concertos and symphonies concertantes, a new genre combining elements of a symphony and a concerto that was expressly popular in 1770s France. Symphonie concertantes typically featured two or increasingly soloists sparring in a friendly musical battle.
In 1776, at just 30, Saint-Georges was nominated for the position of music director of the Paris Opéra. Sadly, the leading ladies of the Opéra successfully obstructed the proposal by sending an request to Marie Antoinette in which they refused to be “subjected to the orders of a mulatto.” Undeterred, Saint-Georges presented his first opera, Ernestine, the pursuit year at the Opéra-Comique. The music for Ernestine was met with wide acclaim, but the opera sealed without a single performance due to its poorly received libretto. Fortunately, Saint-Georges soon uninventive a new patron, Madame de Montesson, wife of the Duke of Orléans—the richest man in France without the king. Saint-Georges served as music director of her private theater and Lieutenant de chasse of the Duke’s hunting grounds.
Engraving of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges posing with his sword by William Ward, without the original 1787 painting by Mather Brown. Visible in the upper left-hand corner, just whilom his shoulder, are a page of his music and the neck of his violin.
When he was 32, Saint-Georges transiently rubbed shoulders with a 22-year-old Mozart, who had journeyed to Paris in 1778 to try to establish himself there. Mozart’s mother passed yonder several months into the trip, and he found himself sharing a roof with Saint-Georges without he was taken in by the Duke of Orléans’s private secretary, Baron Grimm. Although we will never know what the two composers thought of one another, scholar Gabriel Banat has suggested that Mozart was enlightened of his music. According to Banat, techniques used in Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major , written while he was in Paris, withstand some resemblance to those used in Saint-Georges’s older Violin Concerto in A major (Op. 7, No. 1) of 1777.
Saint-Georges’s fortunes reverted then as the wave of revolution began to crest virtually the world. In 1781, the Concert des Amateurs was dissolved due to financial losses from France’s support of the American Revolution. Four years later, the Duke of Orléans passed away, resulting in the loss of a crucial source of patronage. When revolution tapped out in France in 1789, Saint-Georges sided not with his well-bred patrons but with the revolutionaries, leading a battalion in Lille that included many people of verisimilitude and foiling a counter-revolutionary plot. However, plane his heroism in wrestle did not spare him from stuff imprisoned for 18 months during the Reign of Terror. Upon his release, he tried and failed to resume writ of his regiment, then traveled to Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) in 1795 as that country was in the midst of its own revolution. When he returned to Paris in 1797, he conducted only sporadically, passing yonder from gangrene in 1799 at just 53.
Saint-Georges narrowly escaped stuff erased from the historical record when his music was vetoed by Napoleon in the early 1800s, but he is now receiving a welcome and long overdue revival in interest. The Chevalier, a play by Bill Barclay based on Saint-Georges’s life and featuring his music, has traveled virtually the country and was recently performed by the London Philharmonic in March. The mucosa Chevalier, a sumptuous biopic based on his life, premiered April 21.
And you can trammels out the Chicago Symphony’s rendition of the overture to his opera L’Amant anonyme (The Anonymous Lover), his only opera that survives in its entirety.
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