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Deux Sinfonies, by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was the first Western classical composer of African heritage and one of the most remarkable characters in music History. Joseph’s father, George de Bologne de Saint-Georges, was the owner of a large plantation in the French Directory (government) of Guadeloupe, a Caribbean island to the southeast of Puerto Rico. Joseph’s mother, known as Anne or Nanon, was a woman enslaved by George and a Guadeloupean of Sengelese descent. 

In 1747, Joseph’s father accidentally killed a man during a duel. To escape being charged for murder, George Saint-George fled Guadeloupe, leaving authorities to seize his possessions. Two years later, George’s title of nobility allowed him to obtain a pardon and return to the Caribbean, where he gave his son his first instruction in music and fencing. In 1753, Joseph moved to Bordeaux, France where he started school, after the arrival of George and Nanon, they all moved to Paris, where George worked as an aide to Louis XV. 12 months later, Joseph entered a boarding school where he studied humanities, fencing, and horsemanship. Joseph was given the title of Ecuyer in the position of Controller Ordinary of Wars, which led to a distinguished and impressive military career. 

Joseph became an elite fencer, but his athletic skills spanned from skating to dancing and swimming, an activity he was said to do with one arm. Although he had broad talents and interests, his greatest love was muci. Joseph studied composition with Francois-Joseph Gossec, and studied violin with Jean-Marie Leclair. In addition to composition, he performed as a violin soloist, was accomplished at harpsichord, and conducted two orchestras, notably the first-rate Concert des Amateurs ensemble. After Concert suffered several financial blows, Joseph’s status as a Black Mason led the Masons to revive the orchestra and rebrand it as Le Concert Olympique, the ensemble that commissioned Haydn’s Paris Symphonies in 1787. 10 years later, Joseph became the director of Le Cercle de L’Harmonie, and eventually, music director for the Marquise de Montesson. Joseph was still serving as a member of the image military while he led weekly concerts. One avid concert-goer and admirer of Saint-Georges, was none other than Marie Antoinette, a fine singer herself who studied piano with Gluck, and occasionally performed with Joseph soloing on violin. 

Although Joseph had talent, prestigious titles, and influence, he was still subject to racial discrimination. The French government regulated the immigration of Africans and aided slave owners by perpetuating discrimination against Africans. Louis XV issued a “Code Noir” that required BIPOC to register as such with the Admiralty, and Voltaire stated publicly that his belief was Africans were inferior to Europeans. Despite Joseph’s accomplishments, due to his half-African heritage, he was ineligible for nobility and its titles under this new French law. Joseph’s career arc may have taken him to lead the Paris Opera, but three of the Paris Opera’s leading female opera singers sent an appeal to the queen stating that their delicate conscience and honor could never allow them to submit to the orders of a person of color, leading Joseph to withdraw his name from consideration. Joseph died in 1799 at the home of his friend and colleague, Nicolas Duhamel.

Saint-Georges’s output includes six operas, though he turned more to instrumental music in 1776. Joseph composed in a wide variety of musical styles and genres, but what he is most famous for is his large ensemble work which you’ll hear tonight.His music is Classical in style, vocal in characterization, elegant, refined, and leans more to Haydn than Mozart. It includes attractive melodies, French coloring with touches of the Mannheim School, as well as complex and soloistic solo parts and first violin quartet parts. Much of that describes his two symphonies, written around 1775 (the second is essentially the overture to his opera, L'Amant Anonyme). The light, playful melodies are scored for two oboes, two horns and strings. The first movement is fast and lively, and the melody appears almost exclusively in the first violin (something to be expected, from a composer who was also a virtuoso violinist). The second movement is flowing and seamless, written for strings only, and easily could be confused for a second movement of an early classical string quartet. The melody, mostly appearing in the first violins once more, is punctuated with fanfare-like figures to close phrases and/or sections of the movement. The third movement finale is remarkably similar in style to a finale in a Haydn symphony.

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