Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) was one of the most distinguished musicians and composers of late-eighteenth century France. Born in 1745 to a French aristocratic father and his African slave mistress, Nanon, Saint-Georges’ mixed heritage was cause for both intrigue and prejudice among the French elite. One of the more repulsive anecdotes from his life involved his rejection as music director of the Paris Opéra at the behest of its four leading ladies on overtly bigoted grounds. Despite this and similar setbacks, Saint-Georges was able to establish himself at the heart of French musical life, first as a virtuoso violinist, and later as a conductor and composer.
Saint-Georges’ early life was focused not on music, but on the art of fencing. He studied with master or arms Nicolas Texier de La Boëssière until graduating at age 19, whereupon he was named a Gendarme de la Garde du Roi (Man of Arms of the King’s Guard) and earned the moniker ‘Chevalier’ (Knight). Following his 1766 sparring duel with famed Italian fencer, Giuseppe Faldoni, Faldoni named Saint-Georges the finest swordsmen in all Europe. With this in mind, it is amusing to consider the audience’s reaction when, in 1769, this renowned swordsman took to the stage as a violinist with Le Concert des Amateurs.
Saint-Georges’ musical training is subject to some debate. François-Joseph Gossec and Antonio Lolli both composed pieces dedicated to Saint-Georges, suggesting that they may had been his musical mentors. There is also a claim that Saint-Georges studied with the famed violinist, Jean-Marie Leclair, but this has never been proven. This dearth of information means that Saint-Georges’ 1769 appearance is the first moment of his musical career to which we can point with any clarity.
Saint-Georges’ early works span the spectrum of fashionable genres in pre-revolutionary France. He wrote numerous instrumental works, including Violin Concerti, Symphonie Concertantes, String Quartets, and Sonatas. However, opera would eventually become his true passion. Following the debut of his first Comédie-Italienne (a genre of French comic opera with Italian influences), entitled Ernestine, he focused almost entirely on stage works, leaving behind his earlier interest in instrumental music genres.
While Saint-Georges was by no means naïve to the symphony genre (he famously commissioned and conducted Franz Joseph Haydn’s Paris Symphonies), he appears to have mostly avoided symphonic compositions, favouring the more French Symphonie Concertante genre. Symphony No. 2 was published in 1799 (the year of his death) alongside Symphony No. 1. These were the only symphonies he ever wrote, and Symphony No. 2 is actually a repurposing of the overture from his most successful Comédie-Italienne, L’Amant Anonyme.
Symphony No. 2 differs from modern symphony expectations as it contains only three movements in contrast to the now standard four. Nevertheless, the opening movement does start with the expected two themes of a sonata form. The first theme harkens back to the galante style of the early eighteenth-century, favouring a directness and simplicity that welcomes the audience into the piece. This contrasts with the second theme that mimics the empfindsamkeit style, which responded to the galante’s simplicity with a complex sensitivity. While these two themes are intriguing imitations of earlier classical styles, it is in the following development section that Saint-George shows off his artistic prowess. Here, he invokes the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) artistic movement that flourished in the late-eighteenth century, introducing a depth and anxiety that would later spur the music of composers like Ludwig van Beethoven to the heights of compositional stardom.
The second movement appears to emulate an earlier baroque style, but also connects to the sensitivity of movement one’s second theme. The second movement, unlike the first, maintains the same emotional quality throughout – a standard procedure in baroque music. It’s quiet melancholy finally gives way to the exuberant opening of the third movement, which initially promises a quick and bombastic closing to the symphony. This expectation is dashed by the introduction of a second section, that consisting of two themes that follow an ABA structure. Only with the return of the movement’s opening music can the audience share in the true moment of triumph. Saint-Georges leaves us with an excited sense of homecoming, certain to leave everyone with a sense of utter satisfaction!
Written by Kieran Foss