Symphony No. 1

Joseph Bologne - Chevalier de Saint-George (1745-1799)

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Year of Publication: 1779, Duration: 12:30

A long, overdue revival of the music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799) has taken root in recent years. Saint-Georges, a mixed-race French courtier, musician, and military man, led a multi-faceted life, highlighted by his exceptional athletic and artistic skills. Bologne was born on the Caribbean island of Guadalupe, one of the Lesser Antilles sandwiched between Montserrat and Dominica. His father was a wealthy plantation owner and his mother was an enslaved Senegalese woman who worked for the lady of the household. To his credit, Georges de Saint-Georges recognized Joseph as his own and took his son at an early age to France in hopes of providing the boy the best education possible. When Joseph turned thirteen, he was enrolled in fencing school, receiving training from the best in all of France. He quickly showed aptitude in the sport, and went on to become one of the most accomplished fencers and horsemen in the nation. Upon his 1766 graduation from the Royal Polytechnique Academy, he was granted the position of Gendarme du roi, a personal bodyguard to the king, and bestowed the title chevalier.

Bologne also studied music. Between 1764 and 1766, composers Antonio Lolli and François-Joseph Gossec named him in their works, revealing his skills as a violinist. Gossec hired Saint-Georges in 1769 as a member of a new orchestra he founded, Le Concert des Amateurs. In 1772, the violinist made his solo debut, performing his own concertos. When Gossec left to oversee the Concerts Spiritual, Bologne took over as concertmaster-conductor, leading one of the most popular and respected ensembles in Europe. Not surprisingly, most of Saint-Georges’s own published compositional output was primarily string-related. In addition to a number of sonatas and string quartets, as well as pairs of violin concertos and symphonies, the musician is credited with perfecting the genre of symphonie concertante, a small symphonic work that featured a number of soloists—sort of an outgrowth of the baroque concerto grosso. In 1778, a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart traveled to Paris, where he may have been influenced by Saint-Georges’s symphonie concertantes, an inspiration for the Austrian composer’s own important forays into the genre.

Saint-Georges’s Symphony No 1 in G Major is a pristine example of the early classical symphony. Composed in the late 1770s, it was premiered by the Concerts des Amateurs and published as opus 11, alongside the composer’s second symphony. Written for strings plus pairs of oboes and horns, the music is charming and balanced throughout its three movements. The first violins dominate the musical conversation while the lower strings provide rhythmic momentum. The winds lend harmonic support and timbral variety. After his orchestra was disbanded in 1781, Saint-Georges went on to lead several other ensembles, including the Société de la Loge Olympique. In this position, he was largely responsible for the commission and premiere of Haydn’s six Paris Symphonies, an important contribution to the orchestral repertoire. He maintained his other careers as well, acting as right-hand man to the Duke of Orleans and serving as a colonel during the French Revolution, when he led the first regiment in Europe comprised of persons of color. His fame and reputation were noted by many during his lifetime, but faded quickly afterward. Fortunately, his music survived, leading the way to a rediscovery of this noteworthy composer.

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2022

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan

It is difficult indeed, to know just where to begin with the amazing life of Saint- George (a.k.a. Joseph Bologne). If any life were said to be colorful and improbable it would be his.  He was variously the first successful Black classical composer; the champion swordsman of all Europe; colonel of his own regiment, which fought in the Revolution; virtuoso violin soloist; survivor of a slave revolt in the Caribbean; confidant and companion to Marie Antoinette; conductor of famed orchestras; patron to Josef Haydn—and much more!  While in many ways constrained by racial attitudes and traditions of Royal France, he nevertheless successfully negotiated his way through the complex social labyrinths of the time as a respected and esteemed member of the lower nobility and intellectual and artistic circles of France.

Bologne was born on Christmas Day on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in 1745, the son of a wealthy planter, George Bologne, and Nanon, slave and servant of George’s wife.  Acting unilaterally, his father had assumed the noble-sounding honorific,  “de Saint-George,” after the name of one of his plantations—but only later was it formalized.  And in a startling contrast to the times, Bologne embraced Joseph as his son, and took him—with his birth mother—off to France, where the youngster enjoyed a remarkable education. It began with training with one of France’s best fencing masters.  He excelled famously—in that, as well as in his well-documented romantic affairs.  By the age of twenty-one he was considered the best swordsman in all of France.  No mean accomplishment.

But, concurrently, he must have engaged in serious music study, for he joined the orchestra of the important composer, François-Joseph Gossec in 1769, and he probably studied composition with the luminary, as well.  By the age of twenty-seven, he was busy as a virtuoso violin soloist, performing his own rather difficult concertos.  Add to that his burgeoning career as a conductor, and you must admit the young man was off to an impressive life.  His many compositions, besides a dozen violin concertos, include string quartets (among the first in France) and ten symphonies concertantes.  In addition, he wrote many works for the stage, including operas.  He had been proposed as head of the Paris Opéra, but racial politics torpedoed that august appointment.   Nevertheless, he rose to noteworthy positions in the intricate artistic and social world of pre-Revolutionary France.  He went on to found the famous Concert de la Loge Olympique orchestra, and in this rôle he commissioned Haydn to compose his famous “Paris” Symphonies (c.1785).  By the beginning of the French Revolution he had continued his remarkable career as premier swordsman, had gotten involved in the dangerous politics of the Revolution, and was named the colonel of his own regiment in the National Guard.  

Notwithstanding his service to the Revolution, like so many of that parlous time, he ended up imprisoned in the Reign of Terror, but escaped the guillotine, and resumed his command after the death of Robespierre.  After the Revolution he went back to the Caribbean, disappeared into the tumult of a slave revolt, and for two years given up for dead.  But, he resurfaced, traveled back to Paris, and resumed his acclaimed career as a conductor until his illness and death in 1799—an astounding life by any measure.

The two opus 11 symphonies were most likely composed in the middle 1770s, when the composer was around thirty years old.  They are almost perfect textbook examples of the “correct” model for the early symphony.   Haydn had been busy for some time—along with others—establishing the norms for instrumental music in the early classic period. Baroque musical style, with its innate spinning out of long phrases, emphasis upon counterpoint, and rich harmonies had yielded to the simpler “style galant,”—an interim style with rather limited possibilities.  And now, most everyone was looking to the more simple textures, harmonies, and balanced, square phrasing that characterized the steps to the classic style of mature Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven.

Bologne’s Symphony in G Major reflects a solid education in music composition, and while displaying all of the simplicities of most early symphonies, concomitantly does not evince any traits of a “student” work.  It is a finely crafted example of what symphonies of the time were—or perhaps a decade earlier.  Accordingly, it consists of only three movements—the obligatory minuet lay in the future—and is scored for the conventional two oboes, two horns, and strings.  The first movement is an easy-to-follow sonata form, beginning with a spritely first theme, with punchy dynamic accents and pizzicato strings.  The second theme is a bit more lyrical, leading to zippy closing material—all within the conventions of the time.  The brief development has some diverting forays into various minor keys before the recapitulation.

The second movement is an elegant ballroom dance in two sections.  Dance movements were conventional in all countries and styles during the eighteenth century, but this one exudes the perfumed atmosphere of the stylized culture of the court of France.  It rather reminds one of a minuet, but only in duple, not triple time.  The last movement is a scamper, in simple binary form, the tempo of which would certainly preclude any dignified dancers from participating.  There’s a bit of frisson between first and second violins, adding interest along the way, and exuberant horns drive it all to the end.

This is a finely crafted work by a composer of striking, unlikely credentials.  It reminds us that the history of music is, as are all human endeavors, usually much more nuanced and complex than later times perceive.

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2022