Friday, July 20, 2007

Black Composer In Polka Dots

As webmaster of, I have closely followed CDs of the music of Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799). He was born to a slave of African descent, on a Caribbean plantation owned by his father, a French aristocrat. Incredibly, this son of a slave rose to the top of French society through his mastery of fencing and his genius for classical music!

Monsieur de Saint-George: 4 Concertos pour violon, Calliope 9373 (2007), copyright of the Calliope label, is a new CD by the ensemble Les Archets de Paris. I find its cover art disturbing and bordering on ridicule. It clearly departs from the norm for CDs of the music of Saint-Georges.

Contemporary portraits of the Afro-French composer show him impeccably dressed in the finery of an 18th century aristocrat. A red jacket is entirely compatible with period portraits, but the Calliope cover art depicts Saint-Georges in a red jacket covered with white polka dots.

What is the historical basis of polka dots? They are absurd! The outfit resembles a clown suit more than a gentleman's formal attire! Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges is still unknown to many fans of classical music. Someone seeing his image for the first time in this cover art would have a highly unrealistic idea of him.

I have not yet seen the recording on sale at websites based in the U.S., but it is widely available on French websites. Calliope has a U.S. distributor, so it won't be surprising if this disc shows up soon at U.S. stores and websites.

Saint-Georges was educated in elite schools in France. Famous first as the finest fencer in France, he later emerged as a virtuoso violinist, a fashionable composer, and conductor of the best orchestras in Paris. Marie-Antoniette invited him to play music with her at Versailles on a regular basis, beginning in 1779.

It is only fitting that Les Archets de Paris and soloists Bertrand Cervera, Christophe Guiot and Thibault Vieux should lend their talents to interpreting four fine violin works of Saint-Georges. Dozens of CDs of his music have been released by other ensembles; the new recording is a welcome addition to the composer's works in print.

The best known portrait of Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges was painted by the American artist Mather Brown in London in 1787. To illustrate his two careers, the artist depicted Saint-Georges in formal concert attire, but holding a sword in place of a conductor's baton. This portrait is found on the above CD Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Concertos pour violon, Arion 68093 (1990), copyright of the Arion record label.

Calliope is based in France. I have respectfully informed its U.S. distributor that I believe the cover art on Calliope 9373 (2007) should be replaced.


G. Y. F. said...

Congratulations on this excellent blog/site. You are, really, an activist.

I thoroughly agree with your comments regarding the de Saint-Georges cover on the Arion CD. Perhaps if you post the address bloggers will let the publisher know that we do not appreciate a caricature that reminds viewers of the minstrel "blackface" shows of one hundred years ago. Even to ignore his title,using "Monsieur"the name rather than "le Chevalier" is an intentiional insult. The inability to view the artist as a full person is apparent. Racism continues.

Joshua Nemith said...

It's wonderful that you are starting the AfriClassical blog as a companion to your site. I agree with G.Y.F. and you about the cover art on the Calliope release. I think it is inappropriate to depict Saint-Georges with this kind of deliberately provocative costuming. I would be happy to also write a respectful note to the distributor if you wanted to provide some info/links.