Thursday, July 26, 2007

Calliope: 'cover is the work of two great artists'

In the post "Black Composer In Polka Dots" I explained I had sent a respectful message to Harmonia Mundi USA, the U.S. distributor for the Calliope record label, in which I urged that the cover picture of Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges on Calliope 9373 (2007) be replaced. I received a reply today on behalf of Disques Calliope (Calliope Discs); it is reproduced here in its entirety:

Dear Sir,

I am Alain Guédé, the author of Monsieur de Saint-George: A Biography, which has been published in France and the United States, and the president of the association ‘Le Concert de Monsieur de Saint-George’, which aims, through its work, to obtain greater recognition for this composer. Calliope has passed on your letter to me.

Saint-George was completely unknown before I decided to do something about that. Only a few rich plantation owners in the West Indies, or their auxiliaries, continued to have his music performed. But their intentions were not truly noble, their objective being to show, through the existence of a man like Saint-George, that slavery was not entirely a bad thing. We must be wary of such so-called ‘friends’ of Saint-George. If you remember, there was not a single website devoted to him in 1999. My book and the work of my association to communicate, distribute scores, raise awareness among artists and concert organisers, have helped to rescue this composer from oblivion. Since the book was published in 1999, there has been, on average in France, two new CDs per year and two concerts performed each week. His works are played in Russia, where I gave a lecture tour, in the USA, where we have many friends and agents (including Ms Bisa Williams), in Canada, where we now have a delegation, and in China, Japan, and so on. This month we have invited Spanish, Russian and Slovakian orchestras to play works by Saint-George in Paris.

The above is just a brief summary of my experience, which, I believe, qualifies me to answer your letter.

Firstly: the kind of respect we owe to Saint-George is above all that of playing his music well. The first imperative set by the association ‘Le Concert de Monsieur de Saint-George’ and myself was that his works should be performed by the best musicians available. The Orchestre des Archets de Paris, which recorded the CD we are talking about, is one of the finest ensembles in the world today. Notably, it has toured the USA. Their recording is marvellous, and Saint-George would have been proud of it.

Secondly: in France (and several other European countries) our efforts to revive Saint-George have had a wonderful ‘collateral’ effect. People who never usually set foot in concert halls for classical concerts have been encouraged by performances of Saint-George’s works to go to such concerts without inhibition. Over the years we have been able to present Saint-George to thousands (possibly millions) of French people of African or West Indian origin. On 10 May this year, we organised a concert at the French Parliament, to which we invited several hundred children and young people from the poorer Paris suburbs.

We could have chosen a picture by Fragonard (as we did for the last Saint-George CD by Les Archets de Paris) or by Desportes (like the cover of my book in France and of the CD recorded by the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana). But this time, seeking something with wider appeal, we decided to ask Cabu to illustrate the cover. He is the most famous cartoonist in France (the recent exhibition of his works at the City Hall in Paris attracted more than a million visitors). It was an honour to us that he accepted. The artist Wozniak is well known, amongst other things, for his paintings of famous American jazzmen. Our idea was to use the cover as a means of bringing Saint-George – and through him, classical music in general – to an even wider public, of people from all different backgrounds. We want to give classical music in France a younger image. And I feel that the same thing can be done in the States.

Thirdly: I thank you for mentioning the elegance of Saint-George, which is something I have brought out in my biography. Your observation, however, poses the problem of aesthetics. Given that the cover is the work of two great artists, how does one judge its aesthetic qualities? Was Marilyn Monroe pleased with her portrait by Andy Warhol? Can one consider the works of Basquiat as ‘beautiful’? Did Picasso do justice to the beauty of Dora Maar?

Wozniak’s colouring, I notice, evokes the ‘Beatles period’. And that is not just a coincidence. The drawing pays a faithful tribute to the life of Saint-George, in showing him surrounded by pretty girls.

How would Saint-George dress if he was alive today? In smart Smalto style? Or with a mixture of elegance and originality, in clothing by John Galliano or Jean-Paul Gaultier? Would he be dressed like George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac, or like Prince? Taking into account his very modern, even provocative personality, Cabu and Wozniak chose a very new and original approach. And the success of this CD in France shows that their opinion is widely shared by people from every walk of life.

This interpretation may come as a surprise, and I understand that. But that was one of our intentions.

Finally I would like to say, in the friendliest possible way and with all due respect, that I think it would be a good idea if, rather than joining in with those who would like to use Saint-George for their own dishonourable ends, you could take part in the vast task of reviving his work, by supporting this CD.

I invite you to take a look at the work we at the association ‘Le Concert de Monsieur de Saint George’ have carried out. You will find us at:

My best regards to you,

Alain Guédé

BP 40433 - 60204 COMPIEGNE cedex

Some of the points made in the reply do not relate to the Calliope CD cover art, and will not be addressed in detail. Alain Guédé is well known to me. I have read his French and English biographies of Saint-Georges, and have visited his website. It is difficult for me to accept Guédé's claim that "Saint-George was completely unknown before I decided to do something about that." His book appeared in 1999. The late Emil F. Smidak wrote an excellent biography, "Joseph Boulogne called Chevalier de Saint-Georges", which was published by the Avenira Foundation in Lucerne in 1996 in French and English versions.

The Arion record label in France originally released at least three of its fine recordings of the music of Saint-Georges between 1974 and 1978: Arion ARN 55425, 55445 and 68093. Another recording, ARN 55434, was issued in 1982.
The CBS Black Composers Series of the 1970s was recorded under the direction of Paul Freeman, conductor, and included music of Saint-Georges as well.

To pick one crucial example, a divergence on the date of birth of Saint-Georges exists between the Saint-Georges biography of Alain Guédé and those of Prof. Claude Ribbe, published by Perrin (2004), violinist Gabriel Banat, from Pendragon (2006) and Pierre Bardin, issued by Guenegaud (2006). Alain Guédé writes that the date of birth was 1739; the other three biographers find the correct date to be 1745.

There is no dispute about the fact that many concerts and recordings of the music of Saint-Georges have been the result of the activities of Alain Guédé and Le Concert de Monsieur de Saint-George. The 2003 CBC Television documentary "Le Mozart Noir", which has been on DVD since 2005, has been shown often in France and many other countries. It may be credited with making a contribution to greater awareness of Saint-Georges. In the interest of full disclosure, I provided the producer with research assistance for the documentary; my name is listed in the credits of the documentary and the DVD.

Alain Guédé asks "Given that the cover is the work of two great artists, how does one judge its aesthetic qualities?". The objection I and others have raised is one of racial insensitivity recalling the demeaning portrayals of Black entertainers in the past. Dr. Joshua S. Nemith put it this way in his own letter to Harmonia Mundi, reproduced at AfriClassical on July 25, 2007:

"I think it would be against the interests of all parties to distribute this album with its current art cover, which depicts Saint-Georges in a caricature-like manner reminiscent of racist 'blackface' techniques used decades ago. Saint-Georges is presented in clownish polka-dot attire...".

How Saint-Georges would dress today, and what fashion aesthetic might apply, are irrelevant questions. The CD cover portrays an 18th century scene, not one from the 21st century. There is nothing inherently wrong with a decision to produce a new image of Saint-Georges, as an alternative to the paintings done in his lifetime, but novelty is no excuse for an illustration which demeans Saint-Georges, and does so in a manner which recalls the insulting minstrel performances.

Alain Guédé writes: "Finally I would like to say, in the friendliest possible way and with all due respect, that I think it would be a good idea if, rather than joining in with those who would like to use Saint-George for their own dishonourable ends, you could take part in the vast task if reviving his work, by supporting this CD."

Who are these people I am accused of joining, who wish to use the composer for "their own dishonourable ends"? I am completely unaware of the existence of a group of people who wish to do such a thing, and I have certainly not participated in aiding such a group. The allegation is absurd!

I will briefly note that my website was founded in the year 2000 with the intention of reviving awareness of Saint-Georges. It profiles his life, fencing career and recorded works on six pages, beginning with an English home page at:

and a French counterpart at:

The reply on behalf of Calliope does not change my firm belief that the cover art of the CD Calliope 9373 (2007) is demeaning to an elegant, fashionable and dignified Afro-French gentleman who reached the top of the French musical scene
as an innovative composer, virtuoso violinist and conductor of the two best orchestras in Paris. I have no doubt that the Orchestre des Archets de Paris has added a first-class performance to the recorded repertoire of Saint-Georges' music, and the CD is listed at my website, but the cover art does not appear at I am very disappointed by the attempt made on behalf of Calliope to justify such a demeaning portrayal of the greatest Afro-French composer of the 18th century.

1 comment:

G. Y. F. said...

I completely agree with your response to Monsieur Guédé. Using a hated caricature in order to appeal to a younger listener is detrimental to advancing the cause for which the author purports. Sensitivity to the totality of what affected Saint-Georges, racist hostility and ridicule is totally missing in his letter.