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Paris: The Black Maestro

Banat can only guess at the kinds of music Saint-Georges would have heard as a child on Guadeloupe, from his mother’s songs and those of storytellers on the plantation to the music of the military barracks and touring theatrical companies. He does not doubt that once in Paris, Saint-Georges had a first-rate musical education. Banat believes he was taught by two famous violinists of the day, Antonio Lolli and Joseph Avoglio, both of whom were soloists with the Concert Spirituel, an orchestra of forty players and chorus of fifty-three founded in 1725 as a part of the Opéra to give public concerts of inspirational or sacred music when the Opéra was closed. Both dedicated works to Saint-Georges. The Concert Spirituel was so successful that over the years it performed twice weekly in the Tuileries, mixing concertos and sonatas with vocal oratorios and motets. Otherwise instrumental and chamber music could be heard only at private concerts in noble households, where such composers as Jean-Philippe Rameau, Johann Stamitz, and François-Joseph Gossec performed their own works.

Gossec, whose reputation was at its highest during the Revolution, had been Saint-Georges’s composition teacher and in 1766 dedicated a set of trios to him, an indication that Saint-Georges already had a reputation as a violinist. Gossec most likely introduced him to gatherings where the capital’s foremost musicians played for themselves, thus exposing him to musical developments from Vienna and Mannheim—Mannheim having become, Banat writes, “the cradle of a great symphonic era in central Europe.”

In the early 1770s, a new type of concert emerged in large court societies. The chatter of the salon quieted down and people began to listen more attentively, or to seem to, a reflection of a fashion for seriousness and making a display of one’s elevated sensibility. In 1769, Gossec founded one of the first subscription orchestras, the Concert des Amateurs, which gave twelve weekly concerts each season in the Marais, in a hall that seated six hundred. It was a large orchestra of eighty players—forty violins, twelve cellos, eight double basses, flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets, and a clarinet, then a new instrument. Its subscribers were described as making up the most brilliant audience in Paris, many of whom were acquainted with the members of the orchestra, which was composed of talented amateurs as well as professionals. By 1771, Saint-Georges was the equivalent of the modern concertmaster.

In 1772, Saint-Georges wrote his first violin compositions for his first solo appearance with the orchestra. His two violin concertos (Op. II) sound like music composed by a violinist, intended to show off virtuoso technique in passages that call for dazzling speed. What is immediately noticeable in Saint-Georges’s works for the violin is how high in the register of the instrument he was writing, close to the end of the fingerboard, a sound associated with Mozart, though Saint-Georges’s earliest violin concertos also recall Vivaldi. He was taking part in the beginnings of the tradition of virtuoso violinist-composers. Banat writes that Saint-Georges developed a technical vocabulary of his own, initiated the “modern” French violin school, “and influenced, from a technical perspective, the violin compositions of Beethoven.” Fred Sherry thinks that Beethoven, indeed, may have heard Saint-Georges’s compositions. “Beethoven,” he comments, “a musician who would have remembered everything he ever heard, was constantly storing up new ideas.” Sherry also points out that the technique of violin playing in the 1780s was based on a growing exchange of ideas among the musicians of Italy, Germany, France, and England. “Saint-Georges,” he says, “was at the forefront of violinists of his day, drawing on this constant cross-fertilization.”

When Gossec left to become conductor of the ailing Concert Spirituel in 1773, he turned his Concert des Amateurs over to his former pupil. Saint-Georges was fortunate to be able to move on to a professional footing, for he needed the job. After his father’s death the annuity that had supported him in great style ended. Musicians were then becoming a self-conscious elite, less deferential to aristocrats in matters of musical taste. Soloists often appeared with Saint-Georges’s orchestra before making their appearance at the Concert Spirituel; composers came to conduct their own work. Banat gives Saint-Georges much credit for the reputation of the Concert des Amateurs. The French bourgeoisie had gained entry to cultural activities previously reserved for the nobility and Saint-Georges, Banat argues, was one of the composers trying to meet the demand for new musical forms. After Haydn’s first quartets were published in France in 1769, Saint-Georges responded to this new form of chamber music with six string quartets of his own in 1773. According to Sherry, “Although these quartets do not have particularly memorable themes or potent development sections, they employ the four instruments more equally (in the manner of Haydn) than many ordinary chamber works of the day, which kept the cello on the bass line and the inner voices in accompanimental roles.” Writing for ensemble playing, with its emphasis on intimacy and cooperation, clearly suited his temperament.

In 1775, according to Banat, Saint-Georges once again had a part in “introducing a new genre,” the symphonie concertante. Light in texture, tuneful, and only two movements in length, the chief characteristic of the symphonie concertante, as Saint-Georges wrote it, is that it calls for “two, three, or as many as nine soloists in a single work.” Saint-Georges usually scored his symphonies concertantes for two solo violins accompanying strings, two oboes or flutes, and two French horns. The 1980 edition of The Grove Dictionary of Music calls them “among the most charming in the repertoire.” But it was not a form that proved popular for long: the public grew tired of the novelty of seeing several favorite soloists playing together. However, for Banat, Saint-Georges’s symphonies concertantes attest to his being a link between successive styles, including

the baroque concerto grosso and the symphonies concertantes of Franz Josef Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the triple concerto of Beethoven, and—dare I say it?—the double concerto for violin, cello, and orchestra by Brahms.

However, Banat doesn’t give enough attention here to the fact that Johann Christian Bach also published symphonies concertantes in Paris in the early 1770s.

Banat tries to make the strongest case he can for a man who was always very modest about his accomplishments. He cites Saint-Georges’s Violin Concerto, Op. 5, no. 2, in A Major, as one of his best works, recommending a recording made in 1974 by Jean-Jacques Kantorow with the Orchestre de Chambre Bernard Thomas. Rachel Barton made an equally exciting and brisk recording of the piece in 1997 with the Encore Chamber Orchestra of Chicago. A thrilling but little-known introduction to the music of Saint-Georges can be heard on a recording from 1974, in the Black Composers Series produced by Columbia Records and the Afro-American Music Opportunities Association. The black conductor Paul Freeman leads the London Symphony Orchestra through Saint-Georges’s Symphonie Concertante in G Major, his Symphony No. 1 in G Major, and a beautiful air from his lost opera Ernestine, sung by Faye Robinson. (In addition, the Juilliard Quartet plays his String Quartet No. 1 in C Major.) This wonderful recording came out at a time when the proponents of black cultural nationalism were not in the mood to celebrate an historic black composer who was at home in a European culture.

My favorite American,” Marie Antoinette is supposed to have said of Saint-Georges. Diarists and letter-writers of the day sometimes referred to him as “the American,” when they were not identifying him as “the mulatto.” He called himself “Creole,” in the old sense of a French person born outside France, in the colonies, not in the later sense of a person of mixed race. Paris was his home, but Saint-Georges found that there was a limit to how far he could go in French society.

In 1776, Saint-Georges headed a company that was bidding to take over management of the Opéra, which outranked the Comédie Française and the Théâtre Italien as a “temple that united music, drama, and dance under one roof.” It was also important as a social and political arena. The nobility had its own rituals for attending the Opéra (Banat says that Saint-Georges’s orchestra wore court attire, because one never knew when Marie Antoinette might attend a performance); while the Opéra also served as a forum where “the bourgeois folk on benches of the ‘pit,’ like the common folk and students up in the paradis, could air their views.”

Saint-Georges was an admirer of Christoph Willibald von Gluck, the most popular opera composer at the time and a favorite of Marie Antoinette. “To those hoping to maintain Gluck’s high standards of the Paris Opéra,” Banat writes, “Saint-Georges, a ‘Gluckiste,’ who within two short seasons had turned his orchestra into the finest in Europe, seemed the only one who could retain those standards to make the Opéra solvent.” To be head of the Académie Royale de Musique would have made Saint-Georges “the most powerful musician in France.” However, three leading ladies who performed in the Académie addressed a petition to Marie Antoinette, stating that “their honor and their delicate conscience could never allow them to submit to the orders of a mulatto.” Saint-Georges promptly withdrew his name, rather than embarrass the Queen further.

What Saint-Georges thought of the most overt professional rejection he experienced in France isn’t known; but he immediately began work on an opera, Ernestine, whose plot was taken from a popular novel by Mme Riccoboni and turned into a libretto by none other than Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, then a young officer who would go on to write Les Liaisons dangereuses. Their opéra comique met with a disastrous reception at its première at the Théâtre Italien in 1777, not helped by the antics of Marie Antoinette, who “ridiculed the performance more than anyone,” according to one critic. Saint-Georges wrote six operas altogether, two of which had some success. L’Amant anonyme, of 1780, a two-act comedy, seems to be the most nearly complete of his operatic works to have survived.6

Saint-Georges, Banat surmises, probably had to cover the cost of his operatic failures himself. He sought the patronage of the House of Orléans, the branch of the royal family descended from Philip I, brother of Louis XIV. In 1778, Saint-Georges became the lieutenant of the Duke of Orléans’s hunt—he was said, according to Banat, to have the best seat in France—as well as music director of his wife’s theater. Saint-Georges’s operas were performed there first. Such “private theaters sponsored by the nobility and the wealthy bourgeoisie” had become increasingly important in the cultural life of the capital.

It helped Saint-Georges that he was a Mason, Freemasonry being at the time anti-establishment and something of a musician’s union. In 1781, the Concert des Amateurs closed, succumbing to financial pressures, and Saint-Georges quickly reconstituted it on a somewhat smaller scale as Le Concert de la Lodge Olympique, the orchestra of the Masonic lodge that the young Philippe d’Orléans, son of the duke, had installed at the Palais-Royal. When the duke died, in 1785, Saint-Georges took up residence at the Palais-Royal and joined the entourage of Philippe, who had succeeded to his father’s title. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun recalls in her memoirs how Saint-Georges’s playing the violin beguiled early morning listeners in the palace gardens. Philippe, who actively favored populist causes, had increasing support from bourgeois and aristocratic reformers in France, and while in his employ, Saint-Georges became sympathetic to his ideas. Philippe engaged him as an envoy to George IV, Prince of Wales, who had expressed an interest in watching Saint-Georges fence.

On a visit to London in 1787, Saint-Georges fought an exhibition match with the Chevalier d’Éon, a spy and a skilled fencer who had disguised himself as a woman when in the service of Louis XV in Russia. In England, d’Éon lived out his life in women’s clothes. When he crossed swords with Saint-Georges, in the presence of the Prince of Wales, he was in drag. Saint-Georges gallantly let the sixty-year-old “chevalière” win.

Philippe was a great Anglophile and he carefully cultivated a friendship with the Prince, while the French royal court frowned on him for his political activity. He transformed the Palais-Royal, filling it with cafés that became the meeting places of advocates of free expression and critics of the monarchy. There, Saint-Georges met the radical writer Jacques Pierre Brissot, who in 1787, with the Marquis de Lafayette, the Abbé Grégoire, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, and others, formed the Society of the Friends of Blacks, to work for the abolition of slavery. The committee did not work for long; it was soon overtaken by the Revolution.

Marie Antoinette hated the Duke of Orléans, but Saint-Georges nonetheless remained loyal to him. Banat asks what kind of inner struggle Saint-Georges may have undergone before he turned against “that grand society which, even if only within certain limits, had accepted and nurtured him.” When the Bastille fell, Saint-Georges was again in England, as the duke’s emissary to the Prince of Wales at Brighton. On the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, Philippe was back in Paris, and Saint-Georges was in the northern city of Lille, presumably acting as the duke’s agent on the frontier with the Austrian Netherlands.

Saint-Georges fell ill and while convalescing wrote his last opéra comique. When he recovered in 1790, he quit the private service of Philippe to enlist in the National Guard as a captain. The debate on slavery in the Assembly decided him firmly in favor of the Revolution.7 In 1792, the Assembly formed a regiment of men of color and named Saint-Georges its colonel. He led his men skillfully; according to one contemporary account, he was “a good chief fulfilling perfectly his duty of Patriot.” But despite his apparent commitment to the revolutionary cause, Saint-Georges’s position was not secure.

France was caught up in the Great Terror. Philippe Égalité, as the duke had become known, his secretary, Laclos, and Saint-Georges were denounced to the Committee of Public Safety in 1793, and Philippe Égalité, who had voted for the execution of the King the previous year, was guillotined. Though Saint-Georges had been a loyal soldier, he was stripped of his command following Marat’s assassination and imprisoned at Hondainville. The reasons for his arrest were never made clear, but, as Banat writes,

under the new law, Saint-Georges could have been considered suspect …for any number of crimes…. As a former gendarme of the king and ci devant chevalier, he belonged to the nobility: he had consorted with the queen, now awaiting trial; with the Duke of Orléans…now under arrest; with the Prince of Wales, an enemy of France…. He could have been arrested for any of those reasons.

He was freed after eleven months, but never restored to his regiment. His extant letters are addressed to the Revolutionary bureaucracy, futile petitions to have his honor satisfied and his salary paid.

After the Terror, in 1796, Saint-Georges accompanied a commission sent to Saint-Domingue to confront Andre Rigaud, a mulatto who, while Toussaint L’Ouverture was fighting the English, was enslaving blacks and whites alike in the territory under his control. Saint-Georges may have hoped that he could do something at last about slavery, but he found savage racial strife and “a maelstrom of hatred,” as Banat writes, between mulattos and blacks. The envoys narrowly escaped with their lives. Back in Paris, many of his close friends had perished on the guillotine. Overwhelmed by the Revolution, Saint-Georges stopped writing music, but the last mention of him in the Paris press indicates that he was still leading an orchestra. A civil war in Haiti, “the War of the Knives,” had broken out as Saint-Georges lay dying in Paris in 1799. No one knows where he is buried.

  1. 6

    Le Nègre des Lumières, an opera of his life, constructed by Alain Guédé, using his music, was staged in Avignon in 2005, the same year that his one extant opera, L’Amant anonyme, was given in Metz.

  2. 7

    See David Brion Davis, “He Changed the New World,” The New York Review, May 31, 2007; and The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, edited by Lynn Hunt (St. Martin’s, 1996). The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938) by C.L.R. James is the great work on the connections between the French and Haitian revolutions.

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