Virtuoso of the sword and the bow

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Luis Dias

The gaping wound of racial prejudice in the US has been reopened by the murder of George Floyd by its police. The protests have had a domino effect on attitudes across the spectrum, across the world. In the classical music world, it has again highlighted its shameful neglect of ‘minority’ (ie non-white) composers.

I stumbled upon the music of Joseph Bologne (sometimes misspelled as Boulogne), Le Chevalier de Sait-Georges (1745-1799) by accident in the Noughties in London, scouring through ‘bargain buys’ of classical music CDs on the Naxos label, which often had high-quality recordings of lesser-known composers and performers at a fraction of the price of competitive labels like Deutsche Grammophon, Hyperion, Decca, etc. He caught my attention because the CD featured his violin concertos. And he was black, and I’d never heard of him before!

His life story reads like a Hollywood blockbuster. He was the son of a 17-year old African slave Nanon (Anne Danneveau) impregnated by her master, George de Bologne; a plantation owner in the French colony of Guadaloupe; an expert athlete, the “greatest fencer in all of France”, a boxer runner, an ice-skater, the “best marksman in Europe”. He was one of the first black Freemasons in France. He led a legion of over a thousand Black troops (nicknamed the Legion Saint-Georges) to defend the new Republic after the French Revolution. His subordinate lieutenant colonel was Alexandre Dumas père, father of the famous writer. (It is believed that Porthos from the ‘Three Musketeers’ was based on Dumaspère, and Aramis on Saint-Georges.) However, Saint-Georges was then prosecuted during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, spent a year in prison but had his life spared (only because Robespierre himself got guillotined first!), although stripped of all his titles, dying at 54.

But now to his music: He was fêted as “one of the best violinists in France”, and commissioned works from the greatest composers (he commissioned and conducted the premières of Haydn’s six ‘Paris’ symphonies; Antonio Lolli, François Gossec, and others dedicated music to him). He started orchestras everywhere he went in his turbulent, peripatetic yet short lifespan. He was a successful operatic composer in addition to writing symphonies, overtures, concertos, sinfonias concertante, ballets, string quartets, and vocal repertoire. He lived in the same building as Mozart in the latter’s Paris years, and it is impossible they couldn’t have known of each other. Indeed, noted virtuoso violinist, former member of the New York Philharmonic, musicologist, author, teacher, and Holocaust survivor Gabriel Banat in his 2006 book ‘The Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow’ furnishes compelling evidence that Saint-Georges strongly influenced Mozart’s own compositions. And yet, Saint-Georges is today called the Black Mozart’, a back-handed compliment, especially given that he was the older of the two.

Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges was born on Christmas Day in 1745. His father obviously cared enough about his illegitimate son to have him sent to Paris in 1753 where he acquired a boarding-school education, mornings devoted to math, history, foreign languages, music, drawing and dance, and the rest of the day set aside for fencing!

Saint-Georges’ constant ‘half-in, half-out’ status dogged him all his life. He could lead a life of privilege due to his ‘half-whiteness’, but was ineligible for any titles of nobility nor could be married into ‘aristocracy’ due to his ‘half-blackness’ under France’s prevalent Code Noir. He, therefore, had to prove his mettle in everything he undertook. His fencing prowess was legendary. When taunted as ‘mulatto’ by challenger Alexandre Picard, Saint-Georges bested him easily in a duel watched by both, pro-slavery and abolitionist campaigners(his father rewarded him with a magnificent horse-drawn carriage). He swam the River Seine “using just one arm”, the second US President John Adams publicly acclaimed his marksmanship and was an excellent dancer, a ladies’ man and heart-throb of Paris.

Graduating in 1766, he was made officer in the court of King Louis XV, earning him the nickname ‘Le Chevalier’ although not an official title.

He studied harpsichord, violin and composition under great contemporary musicians, including Antonio Lolli and François Gossec, and was quickly deemed just as expert with the bow as with the sword. Conductor Joshua Weilerstein in his ‘Sticky Notes’ podcast on Saint-Georges, gauging his prowess based on the violin concerto he wrote for his own performance, calls him “a Paganini before there was a Paganini”. His violin concertos are far more challenging pyrotechnically than those of Mozart written around the same time, perhaps further explaining why they are so seldom performed or recorded, apart from the vagaries of racism and history.

Gossec who had founded the orchestra ‘Le Concert des Amateurs’, (whose name belied its extremely high standard in all Europe), took the bold step of naming Saint-Georges its concertmaster and also championing his compositions. Gossec and Saint-Georges were among the first composers to write in the newly-ascendant ‘Classical’ style. Saint-Georges also took up (and mastered) conducting, was named lead conductor of his orchestra and among the best in Europe.

However, racism would rear its ugly head often: when Saint-Georges was the only person in France qualified for the prestigious post of Directeur of the Paris Opèra, three leading sopranos wrote a letter to the king, that their “honour and delicate conscience could never allow” them to “submit to the orders of a mulatto”. The king, bowing to pressure, left the post vacant. This despite being personal friend of Queen Marie-Antoinette and playing chamber music with her at the piano, he the violin.

He got involved in anti-slavery politics, making several trips to England and meeting abolitionists such as William Wilberforce. He survived assassination attempts, on one occasion single-handedly fighting off five armed men. Despite his links to aristocracy and the high life, he supported the ideals of the Revolution, libertê, êgalitê, fraternitê.

This is just a taste of a truly remarkable man. Those interested will find his music on YouTube (listen to the violin concertos in particular, and a gripping documentary, ‘Le Mozart Noir’) and should read Banat’s fascinating book. Banat finds direct ‘imitations’ (the best form of flattery!) by Mozart in his famous Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola in E flat major K 364 (written on a Europe tour that included Paris), and Saint-Georges’ violin concertos Opus 7, numbers 1 and 2 (written just before Mozart’s work), in one passage almost note-for-note, but just a semitone lower.

Why is Saint-Georges so obscure despite being so incredibly accomplished? His surviving music is barely a third of his known output. The carnage of the Revolution can account for some of the loss and neglect of his music, but a lot has to do with racist attitudes, during his life and after. Even the ‘great’ Enlightenment thinker Voltaire, believed that blacks and mixed races were inferior to whites, and could only ‘imitate well’ rather than be genuinely creative. This perception and envy stuck to the music of Saint-Georges as well. (Interestingly, Wagner would make the same assertions against Jewish composers, such as Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer). But today he is being performed, listened to and studied with fresh ears and eyes, and one hopes his music, long overdue, will enter the mainstream. He certainly deserved it in his lifetime; perhaps we can make amends now, centuries later.