About Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges
African-French composer, violinist and conductor, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges won fame as France’s finest fencer before launching his career in classical music. Saint-Georges, who made music in the court of Marie Antoinette and went on to lead a regiment of black soldiers in the French Revolution, was considered a trailblazer during his time.
Born Joseph de Bologne, his father was George de Bologne de Saint-Georges, a member of a wealthy family who had lived in the French West Indies colony of Guadeloupe since 1645. He married Élisabeth Merican on September 8, 1739. By January of 1740, he had moved to a 250-acre plantation with 60 slaves. One of the slaves was a 17-year-old named Anne but was called Nanon. She was of African descent and was born on the island. George and Nanon began an intimate relationship shortly after his arrival. Their son Joseph de Bologne came into the world on Christmas Day, 1745. His African heritage made him ineligible for the nobility and its titles under French law.
Young Joseph lived a privileged life on the plantation. He had ample time to play, and his father gave him lessons in music and fencing. Joseph’s life would change radically when the 13-year-old entered the fencing academy of Nicolas Texier de La Böessière, an elite boarding school for sons of the aristocracy. Mornings at the academy consisted of classes in mathematics, history, foreign languages, music, drawing, and dance. By this time, Saint-Georges had mastered both the harpsichord and the violin.
It is believed that he was tutored in violin by Jean-Marie Leclair, another important composer of the time, and studied composition with François Joseph Gossec. Saint-Georges composed a Sonata for Flute and Harp. Subsequently, he and Gossec were among the earliest French composers of string quartets, symphonies concertantes, and concertante quartets. His first string quartets were performed in the salons of Paris in 1772 and were published in the spring of 1773.
Saint-Georges became Conductor of Le Concert des Amateurs in 1773, combining his conducting duties with composing. From 1773 through 1775, he produced eight violin concertos and two symphonies concertantes. In 1775, only two years after Saint-Georges became Conductor, L’Almanach Musical [The Musical Almanac] wrote that the ensemble was “the best orchestra for symphonies in Paris and perhaps in Europe.”
At this point in his career Saint-Georges had reached his professional peak as a composer. He published two symphony concertantes in 1776 and two more in 1778. In 1777 he wrote three violin concertos and six string quartets. Some people call Saint-Georges the “Black Mozart,” but that nickname is not accurate as he was always much more than a classical musician and composer. He was also one of the best fencers in Europe and a heroic Colonel in the French Revolution.
Saint-Georges was living in Lille when the French Revolution broke out in July 1789. He joined the National Guard in Lille later that year and achieved the rank of Captain in 1790. Saint-Georges the soldier was still a musician and a fencer, so he organized concerts and fencing demonstrations in Lille while stationed there. He even wrote an opera, Guillaume-Tout-Coeur ou les Amis de Village [William-All-Heart or The Village Friends].
Saint-Georges did have at least one serious romantic relationship, but racial attitudes made it impossible for him to marry anyone at his level of society. He lived alone in a small apartment in Paris during the last two years of his life. In late spring of 1799, an untreated infection caused him to become weak and feverish. Saint-Georges was taken in and cared for by Nicolas Duhamel, an old friend who had served under him. He stayed at Duhamel’s home until his death on June 10, 1799. Successful composers who dedicated works to him included Antonio Lolli (1764), François-Joseph Gossec (1766), and Carl Stamitz (1770).