Chevalier de Saint-Georges Symphony no. 1 in G, op. 11

performed by the Orchestre Chambre de Versailles under Bernard Wahl (available on Spotify), or below by the Tafelmusik Orchestra under Jeanne Lamon

(cover image by Rachel Lynette French)

About six years after the quartet we discussed Sunday comes the composer’s first symphony.

These people’s catalogues are driving me nuts, though! For one, I don’t know whether to title these articles, say, Bologne Symphony, or Saint-Georges or Chevalier de Saint-Georges or what… and then they are named and numbered and labeled different things everywhere you look. I hate that.

I know it’s very much not an apples-to-apples situation to compare this symphony and the previous quartet, but… while that earlier work showed a keenness for the aesthetic many people would ascribe to Mozart, I feel this piece is not just good, but absolutely remarkable, and I’ll go so far as to say that it challenges the idea that Mozart was the greatest thing ever to come from the Classical era.

The work dates from 1779 and is in three progressively shorter movements, as follows:

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Allegro assai

It plays for a total of about twelve and a half minutes, or somehow, even with the outrageously faster allegro in the recording above, from the Tafelmusik Orchestra, a little over 14 minutes. I’ll say I haven’t listened to their entire recording, but it’s the one on YouTube; my impression of their reading of (most of) the first movement is that the much more brisk tempo gives the music a greater sense of energy (not that the slower reading lacks it), while the more relaxed tempo favors elegance.

The first movement presents two clear themes, with a glistening, beautiful shape and polish to the music. It casts a form that begins small, but like riding a wave, grows through the second subject as it reaches shore. We hear pristine conversations among the members of the orchestra that we didn’t get in the quartet, a form where you’d expect to hear more of that sort of intimate interaction. Mozart might have the upper hand in sliding in a cool minor key here and there, but we get one from the Chevalier as well, in a brief development section. This music is just… gorgeous.

The andante is, to me, as good as absolutely anything the young Mozart ever penned. That’s not to say the mature Bologne is the mature Mozart’s equal, but he very well may have been, actually. Again, this music challenges the sentiment that Wolfgang was the epitome of the Classical music idiom.

What I find so breathtaking in this movement isn’t any showy counterpoint or daring harmony or anything, but that it contains such an understated beauty. That’s not to say one must try or stretch to appreciate it. It has that intangible je ne sais quoi that makes it ever more beautiful with each listen. That quality, for me, is generally reserved for works that don’t reveal themselves easily, that have many layers of complexity and detail, where listening is almost an archaeological excavation, but here, all the cards are on the table; the Chevalier shows us right up front what he’s doing, and yet somehow it’s mesmerically beautiful.

The finale generates superb momentum, but it’s lean and fleet-footed. The work doesn’t overpromise. In the previous two short movements, we’ve been given compact, or better yet, concentrated music that gets right to the point in an elegant, simple way. We might want to remember that for a long time, symphonies were small pieces of a larger program. That may very well have changed by this point in the Classical era, but it’s a justification for the brevity of this work.

The finale, as buoyant and refreshing as it is, is extremely brief, at under three minutes in the Versailles recording. It feels like it has so much potential, like it’s the great beginning of something truly extraordinary, but that’s also part of the charm of this work, I think. Not only does it not overpromise, it also doesn’t overstay its welcome. It arrives, delivers, and we move on.

I’ll be perfectly honest and say that I haven’t listened to very much of the Chevalier’s music at all, but if these two works we’ve discussed are any indication of what his output is like, I am very much hoping he has a later, mature period of greatness for us to savor. Imagine what kind of symphonies this man would write a decade or more after this? He may not have written any piano concertos (that I’m aware of), but he certainly has at least a few violin concertos.

Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges has to be one of the most exciting finds in this series I’ve prepared, and he is thus (I’m almost positive) the only one in the series to be featured twice, although a few others almost got the privilege as well. Maybe next time.

That’s all for the Chevalier for now, but do stay tuned for much more delightful French music, and thanks so much for reading.

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