[Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges Concertos pour violon; Orchestre de Chambre Bernard Thomas; Jean-Jacques Kantorow; Arion 68093 (1990)]
Joseph de Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges was born on Dec. 25, 1745 on the island of Guadeloupe, which was then a French colony. He spent his early childhood on his father's plantation, where Nanon, his mother, was a slave. Joseph's father sent him to France to attend school at age 8, and the boy arrived in August, 1753. Joseph's parents joined him in France and lived with him in Paris. In October, 1756 the 13-year-old entered the fencing academy of Nicolas Texier de La Böessière, an elite boarding school. During six years of rigorous instruction in fencing and academic subjects, Joseph gained a reputation as one of France's leading fencers.
At 17, biographer Pierre Bardin tells us, he purchased the Office of Controller Ordinary of Wars, which entitled him to use the title “Le Chevalier.” Saint-Georges was an exceptional athlete who excelled in numerous outdoor activities, including riding, skating and swimming. His musical ability and education allowed him to master the harpsichord and violin, winning dedications of works from prominent composers, including Antonio Lolli in 1764 and François-Joseph Gossec in 1766.
Gossec founded Le Concert des amateurs, a prestigious ensemble of which Saint-Georges was first a violinist, then a concert master by 1771. Two years later he had begun composing and was chosen to succeed Gossec as conductor. From 1773-1775, he produced 8 violin concertos and 2 symphonies concertantes, according to the Works List compiled by Gabriel Banat. In 1775, only two years after Saint-Georges became Conductor, L'Almanach Musical [The Musical Almanac] wrote that the ensemble was "the best orchestra for symphonies in Paris and perhaps in Europe".
Saint-Georges applied for the position of Director of the Paris Opera, but some of the performers protested to the Queen that they could not take orders from “a mulatto”. The King yielded to the pressure to deny Saint-Georges the position, but the biographer Gabriel Banat has shown that an affair between a performer and a royal official may well have been the cause of the refusal. Saint-Georges was appointed director of the fashionable private theater of the Marquise de Montesson and was thus able to present a number of works written by himself and others. He reached his peak as a composer by 1778, helping to pioneer the string quartet and the symphony concertante in France.
Saint-Georges regularly played music with Queen Marie-Antoniette, a harpsichordist, at Versailles. The first orchestra went out of business in 1781 for financial reasons. Masons quickly organized a replacement, Le Concert de la Loge Olympique (Masonic Lodge Symphony). Saint-Georges was authorized to commission the six Paris Symphonies of Franz Joseph Haydn. He and the Concert de la Loge Olympique premiered the symphonies, Nos. 82-87, in a triumphant series of concerts in 1787. Queen Marie-Antoniette attended. Symphony No. 85 is called The Queen because it was Her Majesty's favorite.
Saint-Georges joined the National Guard during the French Revolution, but was soon appointed Colonel of the unit known as the “Saint-Georges Legion.” It was comprised of 1,000 volunteers of color. He and his troops fought with honor and distinction, but he was imprisoned on false charges. In spite of an acquittal, he was never reinstated to the French Army. In 1997 he took on his last musical ensemble, the Circle of Harmony. He died of an untreated bladder ailment on June 10, 1799. The newspapers of France paid tribute to him upon his death.
His music was no longer played often for nearly two centuries after his death. A major revival has occurred in the CD era, and many of his works are now available. Recent recordings include Sandrine Chatron's 2009 CD of music for harp Le salon de musique de Marie-Antoinette, including the Sonata for harp and flute of Saint-Georges on the Ambroisie label; and the 2009 release of an MP3 audio download at ClassicsOnline.com of Natalie Hinderas Plays Sensuous Piano Music by Berg, Ravel, Ginastera, Rachmaninov, Liszt and Saint-Georges, originally an Orion LP, which includes the Adagio in F Minor (6:25) of Saint-Georges. Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges has yet to receive full recognition of his achievements in either mainstream History or the standard concert repertoire. (Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges is profiled at AfriClassical.com)
Adagio in F Minor
Sonata for Harp and Flute