Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

The fact that Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is not much better known is an interesting curiosity of music history. Was he a composer of the stature of Haydn or Mozart? Likely not, but who is? Was he a pretty good composer of the rank just below? Quite likely. Here is his portrait:

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 - 1799)
As you can see, he was a master swordsman, but also a virtuoso violinist and a leading conductor who conducted the premiere of Haydn's Paris Symphonies. Oh, and also, he was a black man. I wonder if he is not neglected simply because he so contradicts the narrative we are supposed to believe, that the 18th century was nothing but a hellhole of racism where a black man would never have been allowed to enter polite society, let alone become an officer of the king's bodyguard and a chevalier. He also became the conductor of two of France's finest orchestras and came within a hair of being appointed director of the Paris Opéra. In London he was the guest of the Prince of Wales, before whom he gave a number of exhibition matches against various opponents. I did mention that he was a famous and brilliant master of fencing? And a virtuoso violinist who wrote a number of concertos for himself. Here is a recording of several of his violin concertos:


Nice stuff! He also did pretty well as an opera composer, but, sadly, most of his operas have been lost and I wasn't able to find a good clip of the few isolated arias that remain.

I recommend reading the Wikipedia article on him, which is quite lengthy. He had a fascinating life and for two months shared a house with a young Mozart in Paris.

2 comments:

Marc said...

Never having heard of him, thanks for writing this. Listened to his sonatas nos 1, 2, and 3 for harpsichord and violin-- pleasant, gracious, charming, attention-keeping. He must have been an extraordinary fellow to have lived through all of the vicissitudes that befell him-- the Wikipedia article veers toward the hagiographical in places, doesn't it, though. Just a couple of minutes of the overture to L'amant anonyme failed to impress me sufficiently enough to warrant my continuing to violate the Lenten 'no opera' resolution-- but there isn't any of his operatic vocal work (only overtures and ballets) at Spotify, anyway.

I broke down and listened a bit of an aria from Ernestine on YouTube; eh. Maybe after Easter. (Judging from comments over there, you were prudent not to write, 'le Mozart noir'....)

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, a really extraordinary person! I confess that I did rather browse past the more hagiographical bits in the article. I have always avoided the kind of shallow promotion implied by phrases like "le Mozart noir" --except in jest, of course.