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 customs of the period that is dominated by Haydn and Mozart; and the life and work of Saint-Georges are important if we are to understand the musical developments of that time.” Banat sees him as a transitional figure between Haydn and Beethoven.

In Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, a scene opens with the young Queen seated at the harpsichord beside a handsome black man in a powdered wig. She takes her leave of him with a smile. Nothing in the film says so, but this is clearly “the famous Saint-Georges,” as he was called, who for a brief period had been included in Marie Antoinette’s intimate musicales. Tall, graceful in bearing, easily spotted in the crowds at the Palais-Royal, Saint-Georges also became famous in his youth as one of the greatest fencing masters of the time. When John Adams was in Paris in 1779 as a member of the commission negotiating an alliance between Louis XVI and the Continental Congress, he recorded in his diary some of the stories about Saint-Georges then making the rounds of fashionable salons. “The most accomplished man in Europe in Riding, Shooting, Fencing, dancing, Music,” he would “hit a Crown Piece in the Air with a Pistoll Ball.” It was said that crowds gathered along the Seine in winter to watch him skate and in spring to watch him swim across the river with one arm tied behind his back.

What makes Banat’s book particularly welcome is that Saint-Georges finally has a biographer who tries to give a sense of his place in music history. He has no patience with the romanticized biographies and fictionalized accounts of Saint-Georges’s life, particularly those that have been published in France in recent years. Banat has gone through the archives to establish what can be known with certainty about him. Much of his music has survived, but only two of his letters; three friends left tender portraits of him in their memoirs.


Saint-Georges’s biographers do not agree who his father was, except that his was a member of an extended family of planters on Guadeloupe.4 Banat writes that George Bologne de Saint-George [sic] was named “after one of his properties, not to denote nobility but as a way of distinguishing him from other Bolognes.” Descended from Huguenots, the Bolognes had been Creoles, or natives to the island, for several generations. Banat guesses that Joseph’s mother, Nanon, was a household slave. “All contemporary reports emphasize that she was very beautiful.” George Bologne was married and had a daughter, but his only son was his mixed-race child, Joseph, born on Christmas Day in 1745.

Though a grand-colon—a large property ownerSaint-Georges’s father could not have fully protected him from the Code Noir, the regulations regarding the treatment of blacks in Guadeloupe and other French colonies first promulgated by Louis XIV, which stipulated that a black person’s status be determined by his or her mother’s. Free blacks were a threat to the slave system,5 and to liberate a slave required the approval of the authorities and the payment of a heavy tax. Marriage between whites and free blacks was prohibited; a free black could not take the name of a white person or inherit property from any white person. A free black in the colonies could not share a table with a white person, carry a sword, or display silk or lace embroidery on his or her clothing.

In 1753, Joseph’s father took him to France, enrolling him in the Collège Saint Louis, a Jesuit school in Angoulême. He returned with Joseph’s mother in 1755. If Bologne planned to go back to Guadeloupe, he was prevented from doing so by the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in 1756. When the family finally moved to Paris, Bologne purchased a post as gentleman of the king’s bedchamber, thus becoming ennobled. In 1758, Joseph, age thirteen, was placed in the fencing academy of Tessier de la Boëssière, where he remained for six years. So great was his talent that by the time he was seventeen, many turned up at the academy to cross foils with him. As La Boëssière’s son would remember years later, Joseph’s fellow pupils were devoted to him, because his strength and skill went with a sweetness of manner that charmed even those among his peers who envied his success. He exhibited an enormous capacity for self-control at a young age, but all his life he was known to have a temper when provoked. Still, Saint-Georges negotiated his way among the upper ranks so successfully that he dazzled most white people into overlooking, if not forgetting, his color. He was not a light-skinned black who could more or less blend in; according to contemporary accounts, he was brown and unusually handsome.

In 1761, a rival fencing master sought to promote his new school in Rouen by challenging “La Boëssière’s mulatto” to a match. In a widely publicized contest, Joseph dispatched his opponent with ease. Banat surmises that Louis XV may have had a bet on the outcome. Afterward, the King appointed Joseph a gendarme du roi—one of an elite unit of guards who patrolled the grounds of Versailles on horseback—making him a chevalier. “The Chevalier de Saint-Georges would become the darling of salons and drawing rooms of Paris society…’he loved and was loved.'” He lived the life of a young aristocrat, driving about in his English chaise. He was surrounded by an entourage of high-born sportsmen. But no matter how much in demand he was as a lover and friend, he was nevertheless unthinkable as a husband.

A small school of Enlightenment writers, including Condorcet and the Abbé Henri Grégoire, did not believe that black people were inferior to white people. But while the Encyclopédistes condemned the slave trade in no uncertain terms, that did not necessarily mean that they believed Africans the equal of Europeans. Voltaire joked that he wasn’t sure if Africans were descended from monkeys or if monkeys were descended from Africans. When planters in the French Antilles returned to Paris after securing their fortunes, it was not uncommon for them to bring with them their slave mistresses (as Mirabeau’s uncle did) or their sons by slave mistresses (but not their daughters).

Blacks were familiar figures in French ports and the capital in the eighteenth century, but their numbers are hard to ascertain and their legal situation was subject to change. In 1762, when a decree supported by racist politicians required them to submit their names to the Admiralty, only 159 “Nègres” and “sangs mêlés” registered in Paris, a city of over half a million people. Saint-Georges’s mother Nanon appeared in person, but Saint-Georges’s master-at-arms, La Boëssière, made his pupil’s declaration for him—a proud young man’s way of resisting, Banat notes. In any case Saint-Georges does not seem to have had any great difficulty being part of the French court.


It is remarkable that he received the young aristocrat’s education that he did, since attitudes about blacks were hardening as the importance of the sugar colonies to France increased. France was not to have an abolition movement like the one developing in Great Britain around this time. There had been Enlightenment-era experiments in the education of blacks in Holland and Germany, but these few black students of Latin treatises became theologians and clergymen; none became a swashbuckler who carried a sword and guarded a king. Saint-Georges’s story is closer to that of Pushkin’s grandfather, Gannibal, “the Negro of Peter the Great,” the African favorite and general whom the Tsar had sent to France for his military education.

What is striking—and moving—is that Saint-Georges’s opportunities seemed to have been created by a father’s love, although, having installed his son in school, George Bologne went back to Guadeloupe after the Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years’ War was signed in 1763 and died there ten years later. Nanon remained with her son, but it is not known when or where she died. Banat observes that Saint-Georges was without benefit of his father’s counsel when in 1766 an Italian swordsman challenged him and in a match watched by a large and distinguished audience, Saint-Georges lost. After this defeat, he turned to music in earnest.

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.

This Issue

August 16, 2007