Chevalier de Saint-Georges: String Quartet no. 1

performed by the Quatuor à Cordes Jean-Noël Molard, available on Spotify, or as below in a(n incomplete) video by the Amistad String Quartet

(cover image by Carolyn V)

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was born on December 25, 1745 in Baillif, Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe, son of a wealthy planter by the name of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, and his African slave. George Bologne was a commoner until 1757, when he became a ‘gentleman of the king’s chamber.’

His son Joseph moved to France at the ripe old age of 7, and his parents followed seven years later, landing in 1755. At the age of 13, he was studying fencing and horsemanship. The son of a great fencing master said of him that “At 15 his [Saint-Georges’] progress was so rapid, that he was already beating the best swordsmen, and at 17 he developed the greatest speed imaginable.”

He graduated from the Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation in 1766, and was made Chevalier and a Gendarme du roi (officer of the king’s bodyguard). This kid was doing everything. His father went back to Guadeloupe in 1764, after the Seven Years’ War, and left mother and son with a small fortune.

Wikipedia tells us that “nothing is known about Saint-Georges’ early music training.” He must have been a serious music student at some point, or else disgustingly gifted, but fencing seemed to overshadow his musical endeavors. Gossec dedicated six string trios (his op. 9) to Saint-Georges; Antonio Lolli dedicated two concertos (his op. 2) to him.

In 1769 he appeared in Gossec’s Le Concert des Amateurs, eventually becoming concertmaster, even composing two concertos, op. 11, and performed them, with Gossec conducting. Aside from the aforementioned accolades, a book on Amazon called The Other Mozart: The Life of the Famous Chevalier de Saint-George introduces its titular subject this way:

Joseph Bologne was one of the most famous men in 18th-century France. The son of a slave and a French nobleman in Guadaloupe [sic], the ambitious Joseph moved to Paris, where he was christened the Chevalier de Saint George. During his extraordinary life, he conquered every limitation by becoming a champion swordsman, violin virtuoso, composer, and military commander in the French Revolution.

Wiki tells us that his op. 1 string quartets were “among the first in France… inspired by Haydn’s earliest quartets imported from Vienna.” The man seems to have been talented, intelligent, connected, and somehow… now… also all but forgotten.

In total he wrote at least a dozen violin concertos, at least 18 string quartets, as well as symphonies, symphonies concertantes, and then operas, which have their own section on Wikipedia.

As a short side note, he is referred to as the “Black Mozart.” In fact, if you look at the top of his Wikipedia entry, it actually says “Black Mozart” redirects here. I suppose that’s a compliment… right? Mozart apparently detested this man, but I suspect it was because of his talent and connections. They even lived in the same house (someone else’s) for a time in Paris, and it’s said perhaps that he inspired Monostatos in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. You can read the article about that in an Independent article here.

But back to the string quartet.

It was published in 1773, and is in only two movements, lasting a whopping grand total of only about seven minutes. Meagre, maybe, but it’s a nice little bit of music in a small package. As follows:

  1. Allegro assai
  2. Rondeau gratioso

That’s it. The first movement presents easily graspable melodies, and while this is no paradigm-shattering quartet, it does work on multiple levels. Listen for the simple straightforwardness of the contrasting subjects in this piece. Aside from the instant sort of transparency of the music, there’s a subtlety of touch and perfection that most people might only attribute to Mozart.

The rondeau, as it seems we’ve discussed many of them lately (usually spelled ‘rondo’ though) is growing on me as a really wonderful form to appreciate the effectiveness of musical structure. Listen for the refrain, the main theme, and then the couplets that contrast with it. These episodes are generally pretty easy to pick up on, although like most things, it gets more complicated as we reach the Romantic era.

Charm and creativity are apparent here, as well, with the use of pizzicato and a different sort of color to the finale, which it seems odd to call this very tiny movement in a very tiny work. But that’s that.

This is so barely a good introduction to this man with such an impressive resume that we’ll be seeing more of the Chevalier next week, but if we were to give an award for ‘most impressively impressive achiever who’s almost wholly forgotten,’ the Chevalier would almost certainly win it. Stay tuned for more of his work, and of French music in general, and thanks so much for reading.

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