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Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

About this Artist

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges – a brilliant swordsman, athlete, violin virtuoso and gifted composer – might well lay claim to being the most talented figure in an age of remarkable individuals.   

The son of a former councillor in the Parlement at Metz and a reputedly beautiful slave of Senegalese origin, Joseph Bologne was born near Basse Terre, Guadeloupe, and lived for some time on an estate on St Domingue (now Haiti) before his family finally settled in Paris in around 1749. At the age of thirteen, Saint-Georges became a pupil of La Boëssière, a master of arms, and he also had riding lessons with Dugast at the Tuileries. He fought his first public fencing match in Paris with Giuseppe Gianfaldoni on 8 September 1766 and although he lost, his opponent predicted that he would become the finest swordsman in Europe.

Of his musical education we know very little. In old accounts of his life, it is claimed that he had lessons with Platon, his father’s plantation manager on St. Domingue, and it has also been suggested that he studied the violin with Jean-Marie Leclair and composition with François-Joseph Gossec in France. In view of his long professional association with Gossec, it is quite likely that he received a good deal of advice from him in his early career, and this may have extended to instruction in composition. As the six years he spent in La Boëssière’s establishment were devoted exclusively to physical training and academic studies, it is assumed that the bulk of Saint-Georges’ musical education took place between 1758 and 1769, the year of his first professional engagement, as a violinist in Gossec’s Concert des Amateurs. He made his public début as a soloist with the Concert des Amateurs in 1772, performing his two violin concertos Op.2. When Gossec became a director of the Concert Spirituel in 1773, Saint-Georges succeeded him as musical director and leader of the Amateurs which, under his leadership, quickly won recognition as one of the finest orchestras in France.

In 1777, Saint-Georges made his début as an opera composer with Ernestine at the Comédie-Italienne. As is the case with many composers, the dramatic flair that served him so well in instrumental music proved largely unsuited to the theatre. The premiere was a fiasco, and the work received only a single performance. The fault was not entirely Saint-Georges’ own, but even his popularity as a composer of instrumental music and his gift for writing attractive and engaging music could not save the work from instant oblivion. In the course of the same year, he became affiliated with the private theatre and concerts of Madame de Montesson, the secret, unacknowledged wife of the Duke of Orleans. Utilising Saint-Georges’ other talents, the duke put him in charge of his hunting retinue at his seat in Le Raincy.

After the disbanding of the Amateurs in January 1781, probably due to financial problems, Saint-Georges founded the Concert de la Loge Olympique, the orchestra for whom Count d’Ogny later commissioned Haydn to compose his brilliant set of six ‘Paris’ symphonies. On the death of the Duke of Orleans in 1785, Saint-Georges lost his position in the household and visited London where he gave exhibition fencing matches at Angelo’s Academy.  He returned to Paris in 1787, composed a moderately successful comedy, La fille-garçon, and resumed work with the Loge Olympique. 

Within six months of the outbreak of the Revolution, the Loge Olympique was dissolved, and Saint-Georges returned to England in the company of the young Duke of Orleans, Philippe-Égalité. Once again, Saint-Georges supported himself by giving fencing matches in London and, on this occasion, also in Brighton where he fought before the Prince of Wales. He returned to Paris in 1790, but finding the state of affairs unsatisfactory, he undertook a tour of northern France with the actress Louise Fusil and a horn player, Lamothe. In 1792, he took up official residence in Lille, where he became captain of the National Guard. In his desire to take a more active part in the Revolution, in the summer of 1792, Saint-Georges formed a corps of light troops which was planned eventually to comprise 1000 men of colour. Known as the Légion Nationale du Midi, the corps enjoyed little military success. Saint-Georges was relieved of his command, imprisoned for 18 months, and on his release forbidden to live near his former comrades.

Unemployed again, Saint-Georges led a vagabond existence with Lamothe and lived for a time on St. Domingue. Around 1797, he returned to Paris where he served briefly as a director of a new musical organization, the Cercle de l’Harmonie, based in the former residence of the Orleans family. He died in Paris in June 1799.

By the standards of the time, Saint-Georges was not a prolific composer, but this is hardly surprising given the exceptional range of his activities. The majority of his instrumental works were composed between c. 1771–1779 and issued in printed editions by leading Parisian publishers such as Bailleux, Le Duc, and La Chevardière during the same period. Saint-Georges’ oeuvre is unsurprisingly dominated by the violin concerto and the symphonie concertante. Of his remaining instrumental works, the string quartet holds pride of place with three sets of six works. With neat but surely unintentional symmetry, these quartets include his first and last published instrumental works, the Six Quatuors, Op.1 (Sieber, 1773) and the Six Quatuors concertans, Op.14 (Boyer, 1785). –Allan Badley

Allan Badley is co-founder of the Hong Kong-based publishing house Artaria Editions and holds the post of Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Auckland.