Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was widely regarded as the most accomplished man of his age.

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Not only was he among the most important musicians in Paris during the pre-revolutionary period but he was also a superb all-round athlete and man of arms.

Among connoisseurs of the art of fencing, Saint-Georges was considered the finest swordsman in Europe, possessed of extraordinary speed, flexibility and grace, qualities which he also exhibited in abundance as a violinist. The combination of artist, athlete and man of action - for he also held military commands during the revolutionary period - is unique in the history of music and the man himself scarcely less extraordinary than the phenomenal range of his talents.

In an age when slavery was endemic and slaves regarded as ‘moveable objects’, beasts of burden to be starved, beaten, tortured and killed at will, Saint-Georges, who was mixed-race, was, without doubt, one of its most celebrated men. His origins, in many older published accounts, are incorrect in detail while remaining essentially accurate in substance. Recent research, notably that of Emil Smidak, has established that his father was one George de Bologne Saint-Georges, a former Gentleman of the King’s Bedchamber and an important planter at Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe.

George was the son of Pierre de Bologne, a wealthy colonist and major in the Lonvilliers regiment in Guadaloupe. According to a petition by Pierre de Bologne, George’s elder brother, made in 1769-1770, the family traced its descent from the “noble and ancient house of Bologne, originating in Italy, and from the city of that name”. The younger Pierre de Bologne acquired a significant reputation as a poet and was admitted to the Academy of the Inestricati of Bologne in Italy. The Bologne family owned thriving sugar and coffee plantations and many of them held senior ranks in the colony’s armed forces. George de Bologne Saint-Georges (b.1710) married Elizabeth Françoise Jeanne Mérican on 8 September 1739 and on 21 January 1740, a daughter was born, Elizabeth Bénédictine de Bologne, the only child whose name appears in any of the extant documentation concerning the family. There is, however, one exception to this. In a statement written around 1782 in connection with a dispute between the parish and the Bologne family over its burial rights in the chapel of the Holy Virgin of the church of St-François in Basse-Terre, the parish priest wrote that Bologne St-Georges had two children, a girl and a boy, “both living in France”. The boy is believed to be Joseph de Bologne Saint-Georges, the famous swordsman and composer.

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In 1747, while paying a visit to his uncle Samuel de Bologne, George became involved in a scuffle with a fellow guest. Le Vanier St-Robert was wounded on the nose but was able to return home unaided. Three days later he died, probably of infection rather than from the wound itself, and Saint-Georges found himself accused of murder. He fled Basse-Terre and on 31 March 1748 was convicted and sentenced in absentia to “be hanged and strangled until death ensues on the gallows erected in the corner of the public square in this town of Basseterre” and had all his goods confiscated. The hanging was carried out in effigy on 25 October 1748. A note appended to his dossier tells us that Bologne de Saint-Georges was subsequently pardoned – the date is not recorded – but it must have been before 1755 when he is known to have been back in Basse-Terre.

It is believed that George Bologne de Saint-Georges spent his exile on St. Domingue (Haiti) although no documentation has been found to confirm this. What is certain, however, is that Joseph was born while his father was in exile. Two official documents from the revolutionary period in Joseph’s hand gives his date of birth as [Christmas Day] 1748. The different date of 1739, the year generally quoted, is based on his death certificate. Nothing is known of his mother beyond the fact that she was a beautiful young slave of Senegalese origin who was given the name Nanon. She must have been one of the Bologne de Saint-Georges’ household slaves and may indeed have accompanied George into exile. It reflects well on the character of George that he took Nanon along with Joseph when he and his legal wife returned in 1759 to live in France.

The domestic situation of George Bologne de Saint-Georges seems to have been unconventional, to say the least. Whatever the relationship he enjoyed with his legal wife it seems odd given the rigid social etiquette of the class to which he belonged that George should have brought his illegitimate son and his slave mistress to France at the same time as his wife. That such an act was grounded in affection for the boy – and possibly his mother – is borne out by later developments. Not only did George allow Joseph to use the family name – evidence that he acknowledged his paternity – but he also paid large sums of money for the boy’s education.

It is likely that Joseph gave signs of his precocious gifts at a very early age, even before the family returned to France. Knowing that in the colonies this remarkable boy would be condemned to a life of humiliation and casual brutality his father opted to bring him to France where he would have greater opportunities and suffer less overt prejudice. It is not over-idealistic to attribute such noble qualities to the father since the evidence of Joseph’s special treatment is undeniable. George’s decision to give his son the best possible education was vindicated early on by his spectacular achievements and George must have taken immense pride in this. Of one thing we can be quite certain. If George had not shown a genuine interest in his son’s welfare then the name Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges would be unknown today.

The earliest biographical sketch of Saint-Georges, the Notice Historique by his friend La Boëssière, asserts that Joseph’s facility for learning astounded those who were engaged to teach him. Doubtless, George hired private tutors to prepare him for entry to a regular educational institution and to ensure that he would be able to mix with ease with members of the aristocratic class to which he belonged.

The famous swordsman Henry Angelo claimed that Saint-Georges’ mother Nanon was “one of the most beautiful women that Africa has ever sent to the plantations” and that “St-Georges combined in his person his mother’s grace and good looks and his father’s vigour and assurance”. When Saint-Georges turned thirteen his father, perhaps intending him for a military career, boarded him with the Master of Arms, La Boëssière. La Boëssière’s son, also a famous swordsman, trained from boyhood alongside Saint-Georges. In his foreword to the second edition of his father’s La Traité de l’Art des Armes, La Boëssière writes:

“From the age of eight when my father first put the foil in my hand I had the inestimable advantage of being trained under his instruction and brought up with M. de Saint-Georges, who was my friend and companion in arms right up to his death.

The morning was devoted to his education and the rest of the day was spent in the exercise hall. At the age of fifteen, he had made such rapid progress that he could beat the strongest fencers. By seventeen he had developed superlative speed. The acquisition of experience set him beyond compare.

Saint-Georges had reached the height of five feet six inches, was well built and endowed with great physical strength. He was quick, supple and slim and had astonishing agility. No one else under instruction showed as much gracefulness and discipline. His stance was superb and with his hand held high, he could always exploit the faults of his opponent. His left foot was firm and never wandered, and his right leg stayed absolutely straight. This combination gave him the poise he needed to recover his position and go back on to the attack with the speed of lightning.

He made good use of the gracefulness and talent that nature had bestowed on him, and those watching were amazed. When he was fencing with friends he was full of consideration. But woe betide anyone who tried to take advantage! If he noticed this he took his revenge with interest.”

Saint-Georges also excelled in riding and the Chevalier Dugast, principal of the Tuileries Riding School, one of the royal academies controlled by the Grand Ecuyer de France, thought him one of his best pupils. Around the time he entered La Boëssière’s establishment, Saint-Georges took the first step in his military career by becoming a member of the Gendarmes de la Garde du Roi.

Henry Angelo, who ran a famous fencing academy in London, wrote of Saint-Georges that:

“Never did any man combine such suppleness with so much strength. He excelled in every physical exercise he took up, and was also an accomplished swimmer and skater … He could often be seen swimming across the Seine with only one arm, and in skating his skill exceeded everyone else’s. As to the pistol, he rarely missed the target. In running he was reputed to be one of the leading exponents in the whole of Europe”.

Inevitably the exotic and brilliant Saint-Georges soon dazzled Parisian society and his company was fought over. When he was confronted, as he was from time to time, by jealous hostility, his charm and impeccable manners soon disarmed his opponent. Few would dare challenge him to a duel and on one occasion, when he was slapped by a well-known violinist, he declined to fight on the grounds that he had far too much respect for his opponent. Such was his reputation that Saint-Georges became known as “the god of arms”; he became one of the leading authorities on the art and science of arms, taught as a master and was admitted to the Royal Academy as a professor.

The writings of La Boëssière and Angelo tell us a good deal about Saint-Georges’ early education and training in the science of arms. To have achieved such prominence at an early age must have involved an enormous amount of effort even given his great natural ability. What is even more remarkable is that his time cannot have been devoted entirely to these activities since all the time he was developing his formidable technique as a swordsman he must have been making astounding progress in his musical studies of which, sadly, we know next to nothing.

Early accounts of Saint-Georges’ life claim that he first studied violin with one Platon, his father’s estate manager, and later, in France, took lessons with Leclair and possibly Lolli. He certainly enjoyed a close professional relationship with Gossec and indeed the older composer might have given him composition lessons at some stage. A musical education of sorts was considered de rigueur for members of the nobility and some individuals are known to have played to a professional standard. Saint-Georges’ father was a notable patron of musicians and received dedications from a number of composers including the Italian violinist Antonio Lolli and Carl Stamitz. In 1770 the latter dedicated his Six Orchestral Quartets Op.1 “To Monsieur Bologne de St-Georges, who brings to his good fortune as a lover of the arts the pleasure of also understanding them, and who has given us artists an invaluable gift in the person of his son”. Joseph also received a number of dedications early in life, notably the two Violin Concertos, Op.2 by Lolli (1764), and Gossec’s Six Trios, Op.9:

To M. de Saint-Georges, Ecuyer, Gendarme in the King’s Guards.

Monsieur, In view of the reputation you have acquired through your talents and the support you have accorded to artists, I allow myself the liberty of dedicating this work to you, out of homage to an enlightened music-lover. If you lend it your approval its success is assured. I am, Sir, with respect, your very humble servant

– F-J Gossec, d’Anvers.

It speaks volumes for Saint-Georges’s reputation that two such distinguished composers should choose to dedicate works to him well before his twentieth birthday.

Saint-Georges’ musical career was launched in the late 1760s. In 1769 he joined the Concert des Amateurs as first violin (leader). This orchestra had just been assembled under the direction of Gossec thanks to the support of patrons such as Baron d’Ogny and, perhaps, Saint-Georges’ father. The twelve weekly performances of the Amateurs took place from December to March at the townhouse of Charles de Rohan-Rohan, Prince of Soubise and Epinoy. The concerts were open to subscription and largely featured new music, in particular, symphonies, concertos and symphonies concertante. According to Gossec, they provided the opportunity to hear “the most skilful performers of Paris in all parts of the orchestra”. The most famous instrumentalists of the Opéra and Court took part as well as celebrated foreign virtuosos. When Gossec left the Amateurs in 1773 to take over the Concert Spirituel, Saint-Georges, aged twenty-four, succeeded him as director of the orchestra. The orchestra, which was unusually large for the period numbering up to 76 players with 40 violins, won its great reputation during Saint-Georges’ eight-year directorship and it was this orchestra – and not the Concert Spirituel – which introduced Haydn’s symphonies to Parisian audiences.

Saint-Georges made his public début as a soloist with the Concert des Amateurs in 1772, performing his two Violin Concertos Op.2. According to the Mercure de France, the works “received the most rapturous applause, both for its excellent execution and for the composition itself”. In 1775, two years after the publication of Op.2, the publisher Bailleux acquired a six-year copyright on Saint-Georges’ future concertos.

By 1775 Saint-Georges was so well established as a composer, soloist and orchestra director, that he was considered for the post of artistic director of the Royal Academy of Music at the Opéra. According to Baron von Grimm in his Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique (1776), Saint-Georges’ nomination collapsed in the face of strong opposition from some of the female artists at the Opéra, including the famous singers Sophie Arnould and Rosalie Levasseur. Baron Grimm described Saint-Georges to his readers as:

“a young American known as the Chevalier de St-Georges, who combines the most gentle manners with incredible skill in all physical exercises and very great musical talent … but the artistes nevertheless at once addressed a petition to the Queen to beg Her Majesty that their honour and the delicacy of their conscience made it impossible for them to be subjected to the orders of a mulatto”.

We do not know how Saint-Georges reacted in the face of such obvious discrimination but it must have been a devastating reminder that however brilliant his achievements he would always be regarded by many as a freak, a half-breed, half a man. Of course, he was spectacularly equipped to deflect such discrimination – his sword alone was a fearsome reminder of the respect due to him – but his dazzling talent was enough to guarantee that he would always have his enemies.

In 1777 Saint-Georges made his début as an opera composer with Ernestine at the Comédie-Italienne. As is the case with many composers, the dramatic flair which served him so well in instrumental music proved largely unsuited to the theatre and although the work was applauded in private performances at the theatre of Mme de Montesson, who was secretly married to the Duke of Orleans, it lasted but a single night at the Comédie Italienne. Nonetheless, both the Mercure de France and Le Journal de Paris found things to praise in the music and hoped Saint-Georges would continue to write for the theatre. Saint-Georges’ affiliation with the Duke of Orleans went deeper than music and the duke put him in charge of his hunting retinue at his seat in Le Raincy.

After the disbanding of the Amateurs in January 1781, probably due to financial problems, Saint-Georges founded the Concert de la Loge Olympique, the orchestra for whom Count d’Ogny commissioned Haydn to compose his brilliant set of six ‘Paris’ symphonies. Saint-Georges acted as the go-between and, according to the American scholar Barry S. Brook, he actually travelled to Austria to meet the most famous composer in Europe. Saint-Georges rehearsed the six symphonies and directed their triumphant premieres at the end of 1787.

In the years immediately preceding the revolution, Saint-Georges was at the zenith of his fame as a composer and performer. He had still to achieve great success with a theatrical work although La fille-garçon was reasonably well received. His musical output was steady but he was by no means a prolific composer by the century’s usual standards. Doubtless, his other activities prevented him from devoting the greater part of his time to composition. Saint-Georges was still active as a swordsman and made several trips to London to fight exhibition matches even, in 1787, when the concert season was at its height. Smidak believes that Saint-Georges met with progressive political elements while in England, particularly those campaigning for the abolition of slavery. Within six months of the outbreak of the revolution, the Loge Olympique was dissolved and Saint-Georges returned to England in the company of the young Duke of Orleans, Philippe-Egalité. Once again, Saint-Georges supported himself by giving exhibition fencing matches in London and, this time, in Brighton, before the Prince of Wales. He returned to Paris in 1790 but finding the state of affairs unsatisfactory undertook a tour of northern France with the young actress Louise Fusil and the horn player Lamothe.

The last decade of Saint-Georges’ life was dominated entirely by the revolution. Having been born of a slave mother Saint-Georges was well aware that every advantage he had enjoyed had been due solely to the kindness and goodwill of his father. Being of mixed race he had greater legal rights than a slave, but in spite of his name and in spite of his fame, he would forever be denied the privileges of a white man. Even marriage was forbidden him in pre-revolutionary France. When the revolution proclaimed the equality of all men on 26 August 1789 Saint-Georges embraced its cause and decided to offer his services to the revolutionary army when the chance arose. In June 1791 the Assembly ordered the immediate levy of 91,000 volunteers into the ranks of the National Guard throughout the whole of France. In Lille, where Saint-Georges had been resident for several years, he was one of the first to sign up. As a brilliant horseman, man of arms and former member of the Royal Guard, Saint-Georges must have been a very welcome recruit. He worked hard to forge his troops into a well-trained fighting unit but still found time occasionally for musical activities.

In September 1792 the Assembly decreed the formation of a corps of light troops consisting of coloured men and comprising 1,000 soldiers, of whom 800 were foot soldiers and 200 mounted. They first received the name ‘Légion franche de cavalerie des Américains et du Midi’ but later were more commonly referred to as the ‘Légion St-Georges’ after their famous colonel. In the confused military situation of the early 1790s the corps enjoyed little success. Saint-Georges, like most talented and all brilliant men, had his detractors and was eventually denounced for unrevolutionary behaviour, relieved of his command and imprisoned for 18 months. In the circumstances, he was extraordinarily lucky to escape the guillotine. After a lengthy and byzantine appeal process, he was released but not reinstated in his command in spite of the overwhelming support of his men and junior officers. He was also ordered not to associate with his former comrades.

Unemployed again, Saint-Georges led a vagabond existence with Lamothe and returned for a time to St Domingue where a fierce civil war was in progress between revolutionary forces and those who wished to restore the old order including the reintroduction of slavery. Saint-Georges was bitterly disappointed by what he saw in St-Domingue and returned to France disillusioned and disorientated.

In 1797 he made an attempt to rejoin the army, signing his petition “George”. After giving a brief summary of his experience in the Revolutionary Army Saint-Georges writes:

“I have constantly demonstrated my loyalty to the revolution. I have served it since the beginning of the war with a tireless zeal that is undiminished by the persecutions I have suffered. I have no other resource but that of being reinstated in my rank”.

Smidak rightly draws attention to the name he gives himself – George. “What is meant by this reduction? Saint-Georges no longer exists; the famous Saint-Georges, the brilliant violinist, the god of arms, has disappeared – carried off by the revolutionary whirlwind and destroyed by the fratricidal hurricane of colonial warfare”. He was not reinstated.

Saint-Georges’ musical post was as director of a new musical organization, the Cercle de l’Harmonie, which was based in the former residence of the Orleans family. He soon became aware that he was suffering from a disease of the bladder and died on 12 June 1799. According to Lamothe, 

“At his death, there was no knowledge of any family. His father had had a legitimate daughter … but I searched for her in vain. Perhaps she had emigrated, or perhaps she had died. So far as I know she had never had anything to do with her half-brother… This man who was once so sought after … ended with only Duhamel and myself for companions”.

There were certainly greater composers than Saint-Georges during the late 18th century but none who possessed anywhere near his remarkable range of talents, his exotic persona and fascinating personality. He was a man.

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