Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges


The SCP concert filmed at the Troy Music Hall in January 2021 and available for viewing by the end of February features a sonata by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, born in 1745 in Baillif, Basse Terre, Guadeloupe.  He was the son of a wealthy French planter and an African slave, Anne.  At the age of 7, his father, George Bologne de Saint-Georges, took him to France and saw to his education.  Joseph graduated from the Académie Royale Polytechnique des Armes et de l’Equitation.  Even as a student he won admiration for his skilled fencing and won competitions over recognized masters of the sport.  After graduation he became an officer of the king’s bodyguard.  

It is not clear with whom he studied violin but he was accomplished enough to be in François Gossec’s orchestra in Paris, gaining acclaim at the age of 26 when he soloed in 2 violin concertos that he himself had written.  In 1773 he took over as concertmaster and conductor.  Under his baton the orchestra was considered by many as one of the best in Europe.  Between 1771 and 1779 he composed two sets of six string quartets, three violin/ piano sonatas, eight symphonies concertantes, six comic operas, a number of songs, and works for harp and flute, cello, bassoon, and clarinet.  The orchestra was disbanded in 1781 for lack of funding but later revived with help from the Order of the Masons as the Concert Olympique for which Haydn composed six new symphonies and of which Joseph Bologne de Saint Georges was the conductor.  Even the queen, Marie Antoinette, attended some of his concerts.  When Saint-Georges was later proposed as conductor of the Paris Opera, there were objections because of his race.  He turned his attention to composing operas and to playing for the queen and other royal patrons who began having musicales in their private quarters for close friends.  

His friend and patron, Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, an admirer of the English and of a limited monarchy form of government, arranged for Joseph to go to England.  Once there, he became known for his fencing ability, womanizing, and riding to hounds with the Prince of Wales. But he also was part of the anti-slavery movement.  For this he was apparently attacked one night on the way to play music by a group of thugs hired by a slave trader to do away with this abolitionist.  They hadn’t counted on his fencing skills which enabled him to overcome his attackers and continue on that evening to his music engagement.

Back in France he entered several fencing tournaments in Lille, even when ill with what was then called “brain fever.”  To thank the citizens of Lille who had taken him in and aided his recovery, he wrote a symphony.  

As fighting against forces from Austria threatened Lille, there was a call for volunteers to enlist and help defend the city.  A group formed around Joseph and was called the Legion of Saint-Georges.  It was the “first all-colored regiment in Europe and grew rapidly as volunteers [attracted by his name] flocked to it from all over France.”  One of the officers of the brigade was the father of the novelist Alexandre Dumas.  During the Terror with its political and bloody fighting between the factions, Saint-Georges was imprisoned but never charged.  He had hoped to continue his military career, but infighting forced him to retire.  

Saint-Georges went to the West Indies where a civil war was in progress with intense fighting to abolish slavery, but he did not stay long.  He returned to Paris and again started building a symphony orchestra performing in what was formerly the Palais Royal.  This orchestra was also underwritten by the Masonic Order.  

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges suffered from a number of illnesses toward the end  and died at the age of 53 on June 10, 1799. A street in Paris in the 8th arrondissement is now called the Rue du Chevalier Saint-Georges. 

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