Audiences today don’t know enough Joseph Bolonge, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and we need to change that because he was an important figure in music history who’s music is making a major comeback.
Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a champion fencer, classical composer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris. Born in the French colony of Guadeloupe, he was the son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy married planter, and Anne dite Nanon, his wife’s African slave.
His father took him to France when he was young, and he was educated there, also becoming a champion fencer. During the French Revolution, the younger Saint-Georges served as a colonel of the Légion St.-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe. He fought on the side of the Republic. Today the Chevalier de Saint-Georges is best remembered as the first known classical composer who was of African ancestry; he composed numerous string quartets and other instrumental music, and opera.
The Chevalier played a key role in the aristocratic life of Paris in late 1700s, with close ties to the Palace of Versailles. The Chevalier often found himself the guest at the private musicales salons of Marie Antoinette at Versailles…with Chevalier playing his violin sonatas, with the Queen accompanying on the forte-piano.
In the fall of 1783, the Montgolfier brothers made a major step in human history – and it all happened in front of the court of Louis XVI at Versailles. The first ‘aerostatic’ flight in history was an experiment carried out by the Montgolfier brothers; at long last, man could leave the surface of the earth below.
On the day, crowds filled the gardens to watch the magical lift off. The balloon took off on a warm September 19th afternoon, with animals instead of humans as its first passengers – and it was a total success. Just two months later the first balloon flight with humans was also success. After that, there was no looking back. It was the first time that humans had been able to take to the skies, and proved that Da Vinci had been right…there would be a way to fly!
Hot air ballooning took off in France, and before long passenger balloon rides were filling the skies above Paris.
Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ music was the toast of Paris and Versailles. During the 1780s, Saint-Georges’ star continued to get brighter and brighter. His output during this time was swift – operas, concertos, sonatas – but he also shaped the music that Paris was hearing. We have Saint-Georges’ to thank for the commissioning of Haydn’s Paris Symphonies, which the Chevalier conducted upon their premieres.
Paris was a place filled with innovation, fascination, ambition, and pre-revolution tensions. Historians know that the Chevalier de Saint-Georges was at the Versailles court in September of 1873, but it remains unknown if he was there on the day that the Montgolfier brothers made everyone dream about flying!