Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Dominique-René de Lerma on Violin Concerto in A Major of Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges

[Quatuor Antarès; Integral Classic INT 221.125 (2003)]

On June 1 AfriClassical posted “San Francisco's New Century Orchestra Plays Works of 3 Black Composers June 5-10”. The composers are Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, George T. Walker and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Today we present the Program Note written by Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma on the Violin concerto in A major, Op. 5, No. 2 of Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges:

Had he not actually lived, one critic wrote, he would have been invented by Alexandre Dumas. In fact, the father of Dumas served in the all-Black regiment of the French army, which had Saint-Georges as colonel.

For more than a century, the life of this composer, born on Guadeloupe in 1745, was subjected to shameless fictionalizing, needlessly so. With the biography recently written by Gabriel Banat, the true story is finally provided, based on primary sources. We know his father was French and had a plantation on the Caribbean island, complete with an African mistress. Regardless of the absence of church participation, the father was very much a family man and took young Saint-Georges with his mother when he returned to France. He provided the boy with education befitting a Parisian gentleman, including fencing lessons and more importantly, violin instruction. In 1773, when François Gossec moved to head the Concert Spirituel, he left the Concert des Amateurs in charge of the young violinist. The music played by this band of music lovers was, of course, contemporary, and Saint-Georges did not hesitate to schedule his own works for the ensemble – violin concertos and symphonies concertantes. The choice of librettos for his operas was unfortunate, and condemned the music, however much praised, to endure only a few performances at most. Saint-Georges was not active only as a violinist-composer. He spent some time in England and in the company of pre-revolutionary liberals. While in England, one of his fencing partners was the famed Chevalier (or Chevalière) d’Eon, a transvestite who came with her (his) épée to the match in drag. In later years, Saint-Georges had a different ensemble, this of Masonic musicians, and it was this group that presented the first performances of Haydn’s ”Paris” symphonies, the publication of which Saint-Georges then arranged. His meeting with Mozart about 1778 was less productive, but Mozart was not very pleased with any aspect of his return visit to Paris. Saint-Georges went back to the Caribbean to fight for the liberation of Haiti, but then, back in Paris, he died in 1799.

His violin concertos substantially advanced violin technique, and demonstrate his own virtuosic ability. They also, like the three violin sonatas and two symphonies, employ a clear sonata form in the first movement, with two contrasting themes, a modest developmental section, and restatement of the thematic material. Further, the concertos have a double exposition so that the soloist gets a chance, after the orchestra, to state the themes, or even alternate ones. The figuration work that appears in the development almost always raises the violin to a much higher range than had been previously encountered, and with double stopping and rapid string crossing, identifies the idiomatic writing so characteristic of the instrument. The second movement is, as expected, the slow one, but virtuosity is not shunned. French concertos save the cadenza for the good-natured rondeau-finale, which always requires more dexterity and seems almost as if it has come from the happy ending of a contemporary comic opera.

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