Monday, September 14, 2020

Pluton Magazine: Marlon Daniel: A Maestro on a Mission

 Maestro Marlon Daniel

Dominique Lancastre interviews conductor Marlon Daniel, foremost expert on Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges and the Artistic Director of the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges.


An official Festival of Guadeloupe in the French archipelago, the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges is the largest and most prestigious classical music festival in the Caribbean. It is a tribute to Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), the greatest fencer of his time, civil rights activist, military colonel and hero of the French Revolution. He was also a virtuoso violinist, conductor and composer who influenced the great composers of his time, including Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as well as authors such as Alexandre Dumas.

The festival is one of the most unique music festivals in the Caribbean, showcasing the region’s unparalleled cultural richness and diversity. Led by artistic and musical director conductor Marlon Daniel, the festival offers a plethora of spectacular concerts and cultural and educational events (lectures, masterclasses, workshops and exhibitions) featuring renowned international artists who perform throughout the archipelago of Guadeloupe.

In 2005 France Amérique (Le Figaro) wrote an article stating:

“Marlon Daniel has done even more for French music than French people!”

Long has Marlon Daniel’s dedication to Chevalier de Saint-Georges and French composers in general been known in France and throughout the French community in the United States. However, it was not until his founding and leadership of the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges that he achieved unprecedented international success and praise.

Maestro Marlon Daniel

A known Francophile and lover of Guadeloupe, Marlon Daniel studied French language at the Sorbonne Université in Paris and attended “Fontainebleau” (Conservatoire Américain de Fontainebleau) as one of the last students of the late Gaby Casadesus, a pupil of Ravel. He also studied at Manhattan School of Music, the Prague Academy and in Finland with Jorma Panula. He currently divides his time between New York and Paris. In 2018 he was named Gardien de l’Ordre Catégorie «Met à Manioc» from Ordre des Gardiens du Patrimoine de Guadeloupe. He is a twice recipient of the “Medal of Saint-Georges” from the Conseil Régional de Guadeloupe (in 2011 and 2018).

Ary Chalus( Président du Conseil Régional de Guadeloupe) / Marlon Daniel

Dominique Lancastre: How did you get interested in Chevalier de Saint-Georges?

Marlon Daniel: I grew up in Chicago Illinois and began my musical career at a young age — but even after studying music for over 10 years I had not heard of most Black composers. These were “hidden figures” of classical music. I was always considered an anomaly, and I had few role models. When I left my home to study in New York, a whole new world opened up to me. I began to learn of the rich history of composers of Color. I didn’t learn of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges until 1996 when I met my good friend Christian de Montaguère, who is from Guadeloupe. I should mention that at the time, I didn’t even know where Guadeloupe was located, nor of a Black man who allegedly influenced Mozart. I thought this was fiction! I am fortunate that Guadeloupeans never forgot Chevalier de Saint-Georges, always honoring him as a shining example of Excellence and Perseverance.

I began to be obsessed by these stories of a real-life superman who was brown like me. I devoured any information I could find on Saint-Georges and collected scores of his music. I realized that all this time I was studying classical music I was not alone. I was now enlightened with the knowledge of history that even predated Mozart.

This led me to learn about authors such as Alexandre Dumas. In the “Three Musketeers” I am certain the D’Artagnan character was based on Saint-Georges, who was the greatest fencer of his time. I also began to question everything: Why was this rich history hidden? Why had I never seen a Black D’Artagnan in any of the movies? Surely the contributions of Black composers were just as significant as those of white composers.

DL: What does Saint-Georges mean to you?

Marlon Daniel: For much of my life in classical music I felt that I did not belong because of the color of my skin. White people would typically ask “Do you play Jazz?” and Black people would ask “Why are you doing that white folks’ music?” When I discovered Saint-Georges I also discovered a rich history of diverse composers and performers. I felt that I had been somehow betrayed for twenty years by music schools and society, but now I knew the truth. Saint-Georges had set me free. I was not limited by the standard repertoire; My programs were filled with Color.

DL: How did you become the most known specialist in the music of Chevalier Saint-Georges?

Marlon Daniel: It was not something I planned. I don’t feel like a specialist. This happened because I became known for programming works by composers of Color: George Walker, William Grant Still, Florence Price, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Ulysses S. Kay, Nathaniel Dett, Margaret Bonds, José Silvestre White and of course Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. I also began to developed a personal relationship with many living composers of Color too. They needed someone to give them a voice. If I didn’t perform these works, who would? I did not want their work to be neglected or lost, as had happened to Saint-Georges’ compositions. So, when I created programs for my orchestra concerts, I would include a new work by a living composer, a concerto (for example by Saint-Georges), with one or two pieces from the standard repertoire.

I suppose that is why I’m now viewed as a specialist in performing the music of Black composers. Over 20 years of performing, I’ve acquired an enormous repertoire of their work. I was just trying to do the right thing and shine a light on these underrepresented composers.

DL: Why do you think Saint-Georges was almost all but forgotten?

Marlon Daniel: I believe it was a combination of factors. In the time of the Code Noir, Napoléon wanted to eradicate everything and everyone in opposition to his ideals. To some, Napoléon wanted to erase Saint-Georges from history; however, I’m not so sure he had only Saint-Georges in mind. Napoléon wanted to reinstate slavery (and did so in 1802). Saint-Georges was in direct opposition. A colonel of the all Black Légion Nationale des Américains et du Midi (Légion Saint-Georges), Saint-Georges was also an abolitionist and a celebrated hero who fought injustice and for the rights of those who could not fight for themselves. Saint-Georges sincerely believed in the motto Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. [This is ultimately what saved Saint-Georges, an aristocrat, from the guillotine.]

It should be noted that Beethoven also believed in the democratic and anti-monarchical ideals of the French Revolution. In fact, he originally entitled the “Eroica” Symphony “Bonaparte”, whom he at that time believed embodied those revolutionary ideals. Later, enraged at what Napoléon had become, in 1804 Beethoven withdrew his dedication.

Racism also played a part in the neglect of Saint-Georges. Had he been allowed to take the position of artistic director of the Académie Royale de Musique, now known as the Paris Opera, the course of history would have been changed. Unfortunately, in 1776 a petition to Queen Marie Antoinette from the three reigning divas of the opera assured Her Majesty that their honor and delicate conscience could never allow them to “submit to the orders of mulatto. » To keep the incident from embarrassing the queen, with whom Saint-Georges had a close relationship, he withdrew his name from consideration.

Lastly, France was in great turmoil at that time. Paris was literally burning. It was an all or nothing mentality: out with the old, in with the new.

We are lucky to have a small number of works by Saint-Georges, more than enough to define him as a major composer and influencer of the 18th century. Without Saint-Georges, France would have little to no musical representation in the Classical Period. We are to believe today that this period was exclusively the domain of composers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Saint-Georges’ existence proves otherwise. Today his innovative concertos, sinfonia concertantes, quartets and other works are slowly but steadily matriculating into concert programs.

DL: Thanks to you!

Marlon Daniel: I do what I can. I think Saint-Georges deserves his place in the pantheon of great composers. He should be taught in music schools and universities alongside Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, etc..

DL: Why is Saint-Georges called ‘the Black Mozart’?

Marlon Daniel: The misnomer, the “Black Mozart”, though seemingly a compliment, is backhanded and is inherently racist. “Why isn’t Mozart called the White Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges?” In the 18th century, when both composers lived, he was never called by this moniker. Mozart was influenced by Saint-Georges; how can that make Saint-Georges inferior? The label is a simple tactic to downplay the extraordinary accomplishments of a great man. When Mozart visited Paris in 1778, Saint-Georges was at the pinnacle of European society and considered one of the greatest composers of his time. Mozart couldn’t even find a job: he was destitute, and after the death of his mother he had to abandon Paris to return home to Austria. This is not at all to diminish Mozart as a great composer; he is one of my favorites. Nevertheless, we should recognize that Saint-Georges was vastly more popular at the time. Mozart would have agreed with US President John Adams “Saint-Georges was the most accomplished man in Europe.” Saint-Georges was a living icon whose influence on music, arts and culture was remarkable.

By Dominique Lancastre (CEO Pluton-Magzine)

Photos by : Bob Estremera (USA)

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