Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (ca. 1745-1799)
Violin Concertos, Vol. 2
In an age of remarkable individuals Joseph Boulogne, leChevalier de Saint-Georges occupies a unique position as an athlete, violinvirtuoso and composer. The son of a French colonial planter and a beautifulSenegalese slave, Joseph Boulogne was born near Basse Terre, Guadeloupe, andlived for some time on an estate on St Domingue before his family finallysettled in Paris in around 1749. In his early teens Saint-Georges became apupil of the famous master of arms La Bo?½ssi?¿re and also had riding lessons withDugast at the Tuileries. He fought his first public fencing match in Paris withGiuseppe Gianfaldoni on 8th September 1766 and, although he lost, his opponentpredicted that Saint-Georges would become the finest swordsman in Europe.
Virtuallynothing is known about the musical education of Saint-Georges, although earlyaccounts of his life claim that he had lessons with Platon, his father'splantation manager on St Domingue, and it has been suggested that he laterstudied violin with Leclair and composition with Gossec in France. As the sixyears he spent in La Bo?½ssi?¿re's establishment were devoted exclusively tophysical training and academic studies it has been assumed that the bulk of hismusical education took place between 1758 and 1769, the year of his firstprofessional engagement, as a violinist in Gossec's Concert des Amateurs. Itseems more than likely that Gossec encouraged Saint-Georges's ambitions as acomposer and may have offered him professional advice even if no formalpupil-teacher relationship existed. Saint-Georges made his public debut as asoloist with the Concert des Amateurs in 1772, performing his two violinconcertos Op. 2. When Gossec became a director of the Concert Spirituel in1773, Saint-Georges succeeded him as musical director and leader of theAmateurs which rapidly won recognition as one of the finest orchestras inFrance.
In 1777 Saint-Georges made his debut as an opera composerwith Ernestine at the Comedie-Italienne and in the course of the same year hebecame affiliated to the private theatre and concerts of Mme de Montesson whowas secretly married to the Duke of Orleans. Utilising Saint-Georges's othertalents, the duke put him in charge of his hunting retinue at his seat in LeRaincy.
After the disbanding of the Amateurs in January 1781,probably owing to ongoing financial problems, Saint-Georges founded the Concertde la Loge Olympique, the orchestra for whom Count d'Ogny commissioned Haydn tocompose his brilliant set of six 'Paris' symphonies. On the death of the Dukeof Orleans in 1785 Saint-Georges lost his position in the household and visitedLondon, where he gave exhibition fencing matches at Angelo's Academy. Hereturned to Paris in 1787, composed a moderately successful comedy, Lafille-gar?ºon, and resumed work with the Loge Olympique.
Within six months of the outbreak of the Revolution, theLoge Olympique was dissolved and Saint-Georges returned to England in thecompany of the young Duke of Orleans, Philippe-Egalite. Once again,Saint-Georges supported himself by giving exhibition fencing matches in Londonand, this time, fought in Brighton before the Prince of Wales. He returned toParis in 1790, undertook a tour of northern France with the actress LouiseFusil and the horn-player Lamothe. Two years later, now resident in Lille, hebecame captain of the National Guard. He formed a corps of light troops in thesummer of 1792 which was planned to consist of one thousand black soldiers.Known as the Legion Nationale du Midi, the corps enjoyed little militarysuccess. Saint-Georges was relieved of his command, imprisoned for eighteenmonths, and upon his release forbidden to live anywhere near his formerlegionnaires.
In the harsh economic climate of Revolutionary FranceSaint-Georges found life difficult in the extreme. He led a vagabond existencewith Lamothe and for a time returned to St Dominque. By 1797 he was back inParis, where he served briefly as a director of a new musical organization, theCercle de l'Harmonie. He died in Paris in June 1799.
Saint-Georges's relatively small musical output can perhapsbe best explained by the demands on his time made by his many and variedactivities. The majority of his instrumental works were published in Parisbetween 1772 and 1779 and include string quartets, violin concertos andsymphonies concertantes. The concertos, which were written for his own use,reveal Saint-Georges to have been an exceptional player, comfortable in theexecution of bravura passage work in the highest positions, and capable of agilestring crossings and double-stopping in fast tempos. Louise Fusil wrote that'the expressiveness of his performance was his principal merit' and indeedthere is far more to his concertos than mere virtuosic display. His lyricalgifts are very apparent, especially in the slow movements which eschew thecomplex ornamentation typical of the early classical concerto. Although thefirst movements are structurally sound and well written they are perhaps alittle long on occasion for the material upon which they are built, a notuncommon characteristic of the concerto as a genre. Saint-Georges favours thefashionable Rondeau finale in many of his concertos and invariably introducesappealing new thematic material in the episodes.
The three works on this recording present an interestingpicture of Saint-Georges's career as a composer of concertos. The earliest ofthe works, the Concerto in D major, Op. 3 No. 1, is one of a pair of concertosby Saint-Georges that was issued by the Parisian publisher Bailleux in 1773. Itwas probably composed for performance with the Concert des Amateurs followingSaint-Georges's enormously successful debut in the previous year with the twoConcertos, Op. 2. The modernity of the first movement strikes one immediatelywith its brisk, purposeful orchestral writing and broad, classical phrasing. Itis a far cry from the old-fashioned style of concerto first movement stillbeing written by Viennese composers such as Haydn, Hofmann and Dittersdorf andthe solo writing has a brightness and freshness which is at once distinctiveand highly appealing. The beautiful slow movement immediately brings to mindLouise Fusil's praise of Saint-Georges's expressive style of playing. Theconcluding Rondeau, the theme of which is in the style of an elegant minuet,conjours up vivid images of life in the ancien regime.
Concerto No. 10 in G major was probably composed reasonablyclose to its publication in ca 1777 and like the earlier concertos wasdoubtless first performed by Saint-Georges with the Amateurs. Similar in style to the earlierconcertos, the work abounds with attractive melodies and impressive bravurawork for the soloist. Interestingly enough, it shares its beautiful slowmovement with the Concerto in A major, Op. 5 No. 2, which was written around1800 as far as it is possible to determine. There are a few minor points ofdifference between the two versions although these may well representtransmission errors in the score or parts used by Sieber to prepare the print.In place of Saint-Georges's customary rondo finale is a large-scale movementcast in the hybrid sonata-ritornello form most commonly encountered in firstmovements. This brilliant concerto is one of the most attractive anddistinguished violin concertos of the period and had Mozart seen Saint-Georgesplay it while he was in Paris in 1778 he would have heard many things in it toadmire.
The Concerto in D major, Op. Post. No. 2, was issuedposthu