Chevalier de Saint-Georges: violin virtuoso, composer, fencing champion and French revolutionary officer | To concentrate

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This month, we remember the pioneers of music, including the violinist Joseph White, whose debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1875 went down in history as the first time a black soloist had performed with that orchestra. Check out White’s historic debut in our June 2021 issue.

The following excerpt on Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was published in the February 2020 issue of The Strad.

Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), was one of the most incredible musical figures of the late 18th century, but he languished in relative obscurity for two centuries. Violin virtuoso, composer, fencing champion and French revolutionary officer, he began life on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe as the son of a wealthy French plantation owner and his enslaved African mistress. His life story is told in novels, a Canadian docu-fiction, an upcoming Hollywood film and a number of recent, qualitatively uneven biographies. Despite a growing catalog of recordings of his compositions – there was a particular boom between 1996 and 2005 – his works remain too rarely performed. Here I will examine his re-emergence in musical literature, some of the best documented aspects of his life, and his role in the development of the violin repertoire in the last decades of the 18th century.

Read Chevalier de Saint-Georges: the remarkable revolutionary

Read Joseph White: Making History

Read Thousands demand plaque for Bath’s famous black violinist

The worldwide rediscovery and esteem of Saint-Georges is a relatively recent phenomenon. It did not receive an entry in George Grove’s A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (vol.1, 1878) nor in the second and third editions (now called Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians – 1904 and 1927). He did, however, receive a brief mention in the entry by the librettist Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, who was not to be confused with the famous Chevalier de Saint-Georges (b. 1739 [sic], died in 1799)’. It is unclear why Grove thought it notorious; he was a ladies’ man by reputation, but that didn’t prevent others from entering the dictionary. On the contrary, his notoriety was more likely linked to the color of his skin. Certainly, his white French colleagues of similar or lesser renown were not excluded: the violinist Simon Leduc (1742-1777) had a half-page entry, while the composer François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829) received more than two in the 1927 edition. What makes this levity even more striking is that Saint-Georges had not yet faded into musicological obscurity at the time. In 1919 the French musicologist Lionel de La Laurencie wrote an admirably detailed article about him as a virtuoso violinist and composer in the Musical Quarterly, later expanded into his three-volume L’école française de violon (1922-1924).

Learn about Joseph White’s debut with the New York Philharmonic – the first time a black soloist performed with the orchestra in The Strad’s June 2021 issue.

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