Sunday Morning Opera: Chevalier De Saint George


NOTE:  We will celebrate the birthday of Leonard Warren next week.   Tomorrow is St. George’s Day, celebrated because he is my patron saint. I decided to see if there was an opera about St. George, or even a composer. In my total ignorance I hit the jackpot. The Chevalier De Saint George was the first classical composer of African ancestry. He was an expert swordsman, a man of his era, and the arch-nemisis of one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He is known as the Black Mozart, which, would probably enrage Mozart, considering how much the two men disliked one another. Yet, when you listen to his vocal compositions, they sound a heck of a lot like Mozart. When one considers Mozart to be a genius….?

“…Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (December 25, 1745 – June 10, 1799)[1] was a champion fencer, classical composer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris. Born in Guadeloupe, he was the son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy planter, and Nanon, his African slave.[2] During the French Revolution, Saint-Georges was colonel of the Légion St.-Georges,[3] the first all-black regiment in Europe, fighting on the side of the Republic. Today the Chevalier de Saint-Georges is best remembered as the first classical composer of African ancestry…”

“…Joseph was 13 when he was enrolled in Tessier de La Boëssière’s Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation (fencing and horsemanship). According to La Boëssière fils, son of the Master: “At 15 his [Saint-Georges’] progress was so rapid, that he was already beating the best swordsmen, and at 17 he developed the greatest speed imaginable.”[9] He was still a student when he beat Alexandre Picard, a fencing-master in Rouen, who had been mocking him as “Boëssière’s mulatto”, in public. That match, bet on heavily by a public divided into partisans and opponents of slavery, was an important coup for the latter. His father, proud of his feat, rewarded Joseph with a handsome horse and buggy.[10] In 1766 on graduating from the Academy, Joseph was made a Gendarme du roi (officer of the king’s bodyguard) and a chevalier.[11] Henceforth Joseph Bologne, by adopting the suffix of his father, would be known as the “Chevalier de Saint-Georges”.

In 1764 when, at the end of the Seven Years’ War George Bologne returned to Guadeloupe to look after his plantations, he left Joseph an annuity of 8000 francs and an adequate pension to Nanon who remained with her son in Paris.[10] According to his friend, Louise Fusil: “… admired for his fencing and riding prowess, he served as a model to young sportsmen … who formed a court around him.”[12] A fine dancer, Saint-Georges was also invited to balls and welcomed in the salons (and boudoirs) of highborn ladies. “Partial for the music of liaisons where amour had real meaning… he loved and was loved.”[13] Yet he continued to fence daily in the various salles of Paris. It was there he met the Angelos, father and son, fencing masters from London, the mysterious Chevalier d’Éon, and the teenage Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, all of whom would play a role in his future…”

Frankly, this is more Beethoven than Mozart.

You could get lost in this man’s music!

And no, not enough of his work has been recorded.  A few things are available on iTunes.  I purchased the album Le Mozart Noir.  There are a few things on Amazon.  I love his symphonies, and wish more were available.  They are happy.  To me they are an obvious step on the evolutionary path from music of the late 1700s to Beethoven.  There is an optimism in his work.

One of the most fascinating pieces of trivia about his life is that, while he a colonel in the Legion St.-Georges, one of his two top aids was the father of Alexander Dumas. When one considers the epic, romantic adventures penned by Dumas, is it possible his daring tales of fencing came from his father’s colonel?