Paris: The Black Maestro

One of the first French composers of string quartets and symphonies concertantes was of mixed-race origins—a mulatto, as they used to say. Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was born on Guadeloupe in 1745, the son of a planter and his slave mistress. As a free black and illegitimate, Saint-Georges could not have inherited his father’s property, but his father had the foresight to send him to school in France, where he became a renowned swordsman and violinist. Between 1773 and 1781 he was conductor of the Concert des Amateurs, one of the finest private orchestras in eighteenth-century Europe, which helped to give expression to the changes in musical tastes then occurring in Paris. He conducted the première of Haydn’s “Paris” symphonies in 1786 with the Concert de la Société Olympique, the orchestra of the Masonic lodge he belonged to, and prepared the manuscripts for publication.

Saint-Georges was a success in a city where Mozart on his second visit found frustration and slights (for a few months, they both lived under the roof of the musical patron Madame du Montesson, wife of the Duke of Orléans). One of the sad ironies of Saint-Georges’s life is that while he flourished during the ancien régime, when the slave lobby was powerful and free blacks were confined to the margins of French society, he was mistreated by the forces of the Revolution, which he supported with much hope. He died in 1799, as Napoleon was making his way back from Egypt. In 1802, Napoleon would reinstitute the Caribbean slavery that the Revolution had abolished in 1792.

Charles Burney does not mention Saint-Georges in his A General History of Music (1776–1789) and one of the legends about him is that his scores were destroyed during the racist period of Napoleon’s Consulate. However, Gabriel Banat makes the point in his fascinating biography that Saint-Georges did not disappear completely from the annals of French musical history following his death. His name comes up in early-twentieth-century histories of the violin and in works on Haydn, even if it isn’t always remembered in these books that he was black.1

In fact, he was one of only two known black composers from the classical era in Europe.2 He came along at a time when the court was losing its control over musical expression; when new music by such composers as Haydn, Mozart, and Johann Christian Bach was in the air, and new audiences and new genres for music were being discovered. Banat, a violinist and musicologist, also believes that while Saint-Georges’s being black may have been the initial reason behind the recent revival of interest in his life and career, his music has become the chief reason to want to know about him. He had imagination and an exquisite ear. More groups and performers are recording his violin concertos, quartets, and symphonies concertantes.3 The cellist and conductor Fred Sherry, who has studied Saint-Georges’s music, has commented that both musicians and amateurs are “curious about the musical…

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