About a year and a half ago [in September of 2021], Sheralyn and I were blessed to once again go to Jones Hall in downtown Houston and hear our world class Houston Symphony Orchestra. It was a wonderful program that contained a piece by a composer I was unfamiliar with-and shame on me for not knowing, Joseph Bologne-Chevalier de Saint Georges. What an amazing history and what an amazing man.
Joseph Bologne [December 25, 1745 – June 10, 1799]
From Wikipedia: “Born in the then French colony of Guadeloupe, he was the son of Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, a wealthy married planter, and Anne, dite (called) Nanon, his wife’s African slave. When he was young, his father took him to France, where he was educated. During the French Revolution, the younger Saint-Georges served as a colonel of the Légion St.-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe, fighting on the side of the Republic.”
What is kind of amazing, at the time period, his father, instead of rejecting this son born from an African slave, he took not just his wife, but also “Nanon” and his son, with him to France, and spent much money making sure his son, Joseph Bologne, had the best possible education and music training and swordsmanship training.
Joseph Bolgne, who would become a virtuoso violinist and classical composer and great conductor, was also a great athlete: he was a great boxer and swimmer and he became a renowned championship fencer. It has been said the Joseph was the greatest swordsman in all of Europe, at that time. Because of his grace and his great accomplishments he would receive French knighthood, and therefore called Chevalier.
From the Houston Symphony Orchestra’s website: “Upon becoming a chevalier (knight), he took his father’s suffix “de Saint-Georges”—named after a plantation in Guadeloupe—to become known as ‘Chevalier de Saint-Georges’.“
“Saint-Georges composed and published numerous operas, string quartets, concertos, and symphonies over a short span of time, from 1771-1779. He performed all his violin concertos as soloist with Le Concert Olympique—an orchestra he also conducted.”
The Chevalier de Saint Georges, became acquainted with Mozart, and some people refer to Saint Georges as the Black Mozart. But some also dismiss that title because it seems like there were actually some musical ideas that Mozart borrowed from the Chevalier, not the other way around. In fact, in the concert at Jones Hall they have this pre-concert talk called “prelude”, and Calvin Dotsey played some examples of the violin concerto we were about to hear and in one phrase I heard, I thought to myself-I have heard that in some of Mozart pieces, and Mr. Dotsey asked, at the exact moment I was thinking that, have any of you heard that in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. Yes, yes I have. 🙂
In the HSO prelude talk we learned that the Chevalier de Saint Georges was truly a brilliant violinist who not only loved to play fast and furious but he loved to use the difficult high register notes on the violin.
Also something amazing about Joseph Bologne – again from the HSO website: “Saint-Georges commissioned Joseph Haydn to write six symphonies for his orchestra—Le Concert Olympique. These compositions are best known as Haydn’s “Paris” symphonies and were premiered and conducted by Saint-Georges.”
You would think with all these great accomplishments and the knighthood he received that he would be beloved by everyone. But no, he would still face bigotry and discrimination because of his mother being an African: “His name was put forward as a candidate for the director of the Paris Opera at one point, but the Opera’s prima donnas went to Queen Marie Antoinette and scuttled his candidacy (because they didn’t want to take orders from a “mulatto.”). Despite this, it’s thought that Marie Antoinette may have subsequently performed with Saint-Georges as his accompanist.“
Also, there is this example from Wikipedia: “Louise Fusil, who had idolized Saint-Georges since she was a girl of 15, wrote: “In 1791, I stopped in Amiens where St. Georges and Lamothe were waiting for me, committed to give some concerts over the Easter holidays. We were to repeat them in Tournai. But the French refugees assembled in that town just across the border, could not abide the Creole they believed to be an agent of the despised Duke of Orléans. St. Georges was even advised [by its commandant] not to stop there for long.” According to a report by a local newspaper: “The dining room of the hotel where St. Georges, a citizen of France, was also staying, refused to serve him, but he remained perfectly calm; remarkable for a man with his means to defend himself.“”
At the age of 53, in 1799, the Chevalier de Saint Georges died of bladder disease in Paris, France.
This from Artaria: “There were certainly greater composers than Saint-Georges during the late 18th century but none who possessed anywhere near his remarkable range of talents, his exotic persona and fascinating personality.”
To read the entire interesting and informative article about The Chevalier de Saint-Georges from Artaria, please click here.
It’s a shame that there are more people like me, who have never heard of this amazing man, this great classical composer from African descent. I can see why his music would be popular at that time because of the melodic and Haydn like playfull bright characteristic nature of his compositions.
Please turn up the volume and enjoy some melodic sweet compostitions by this classical French composer of African descent, Joseph Bologne-The Chevalier de Saint Georges.
Joseph Bologne: Symphony #1 in G Major:
Joseph Bologne: Symphony Concertante in G Major:
Joseph Bologne: Violin Concerto in C Major:
Joseph Bologne: Sonata for Two Violins in B Flat Major:
Joseph Bologne: String Quartet #3 in g minor, Allegro:
Thank you for reading and listening. I hope you enjoyed some of The Chevalier de Saint Georges’ music.