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SWORDSMAN, VIOLINIST, CONDUCTOR, COMPOSER, ABOLITIONIST—AND BACK TO THE SWORD

HERE’S A TALE WORTHY of an opera, heightened by the fact that this swordsman/violinist/conductor/composer/abolitionist was the acknowledged son of a wealthy French colonialist and an enslaved African Guadeloupean. I learned of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, from “Reclaiming a Virtuoso,” Ryan Ebright’s article in Opera News, July 2022. Here are tidbits about this multitalented kid from Guadeloupe.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, French-Creole virtuoso violinist, conductor, composer, colonel in the Légion Saint-Georges. Portrait by Mather Brown, 1787.

From the West Indies to the French Royal Academy. “After an early childhood in the Caribbean,” Ebright notes, “Bologne was sent to France, where he enrolled in the Royal Academy run by fencing master La Boëssière. There, Bologne drew praise for his athleticism and sportsmanship.”

Ebright recounts, “In a well-publicized fencing match that served as a proxy for debates over slavery in the French empire, Bologne, still a student, defeated the master of a rival fencing school.”

Bologne at age 22. The three roses on his lapel were a Masonic symbol. Image by Eugene de Beaumont—Paris Journal, Mercure de France, February 1768.

From Sword to Violin Bow. Ebright cites a poem from the late 1760s, in which Bologne’s musical skills made him “rival to the god of harmony.” He became concertmaster of the Concert des Amateurs in 1771; two years later, he rose to director and conductor. 

“With its successor, the Concert de la Loge Olympique,” Ebright writes, “Bologne gave the premiere of Hayden’s six Paris symphonies. In between these public performances, he delighted the patrons of private salons, where he performed with Marie Antoinette, among others.” 

From Reversed-curved Bow to Composer’s Quill. Ebright continues, “Taking advantage of the newly developed reverse-curved bow, Bologne pioneered violin techniques and gestures that later composers, including Mozart and Beethoven, imitated.”

Bologne’s compositions included concerti with sparkling violin solos and string quartets, some of the earliest in France. Ebright notes, “… he was a leading exponent of the symphonie concertante, which offered a Classical spin on the earlier Baroque concerto grosso.” 

Bologne turned to composing for the stage in 1777. His first opera, Ernestine, was praised for its grace and refinement, but, as one critic put it, “the art of the musician can never entirely cover the defects of the drama.” 

His third opera, L’Amant Anonyme (The Anonymous Lover), was better received and is the only one for which a full score survives. 

Above, Minnesota Opera performed Anonymous Lover, 2022, with Symone Harcum, Zoie Reams, and Carlos Enrique Santelli. Below, Brian Bose as Joseph Bologne at Minnesota Opera. Images from Opera News, July 2022.  

A Life Not Without Prejudices. “Bologne’s singular achievement,” Ebright notes, “are all the more remarkable in light of the racism of eighteenth-century France.” For instance, divas complained to the queen that they could never “submit to the orders of a mulatto.”

Also, Ebright notes, “The French Code Noir prevented the inheritance of his father’s title, and anti-miscegenation acts precluded his ability to marry within the aristocracy.”

And Then Came the French Revolution. Jessica Cale’s “Composer, Abolitionist, Hero: The Extraordinary Life of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges” offers details:  “When the Revolution erupted, Saint-Georges sided with the revolutionaries, eventually becoming colonel of his own regiment, the Légion Saint-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe. It attracted volunteers from all over the country, including Thomas Alexandre Dumas, the legendary father of author Alexandre Dumas.”

Cale continues, “Dumas took over from Saint-Georges when he was arrested and very nearly executed during the Terror. Saint-Georges was held for months without ever being accused of any crime, and though he was eventually released, he was unable to reclaim his position in the army.”

Bologne died from a bladder infection in 1799 at the age of 53.

Indeed, as Ebright observes, “Three years after Bologne’s death, Napoleon reinstated slavery, betraying the beliefs for which the composer had fought.”

Fencing champion, violin virtuoso, conductor, composer, abolitionist, and Chevalier. What a rich life for this kid from Guadeloupe. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com. 2022 

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