Composer Profile: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Composer of Six OperasBy David Salazar
Back in the second half of the 1700s, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was the talk of Paris.
These days, the composer, born in the French colony of Guadeloupe to a wealthy planter and an African slave on Dec. 25, 1745, remains relatively unknown.
Saint-Georges’ rise started in the military school where he was said to be among the greatest swordsman. He was famously challenged by fencing master Alexandre Picard who mocked him publicly with racist remarks; Saint-Georges defeated Picard, earning greater respect.
As such, he first came to renown as a swordsman, shocking the Parisian public when he started appearing as a violinist for a new orchestra by François Gossec in 1769. Four years later, Saint-Georges was the concertmaster/conductor of the ensemble and eventually caused a stir when he debuted two violin concertos he had composed.
Saint-Georges would go on to compose several other violin concertos, symphonies, and eight symphonie concertantes, a genre that he championed before it became beloved and renowned in ensuing years.
Saint-Georges would eventually abandon instrumental music in favor of opera, of which he would create six works between 1777 and 1790.
But things in the opera world did not get off to a great start for Saint-Georges. In 1776, at the height of his powers and renown in Paris, he submitted his name for consideration as the next director of the Paris Opéra, which was going through major financial struggles at the time. He was seen by most as the obvious choice given his stature at the time and his close relationship with Queen Marie Antoinette.
However, three of the company’s leading ladies placed a petition to the Queen stating that they could never “submit to the orders of a mulatto.”
Saint-Georges would eventually withdraw his name to prevent the Queen from being embarrassed by the whole situation.
The French Revolution would occupy the latter end of his lifetime. During the French revolution, he fought on the side of the republic and joined a legion made up of people of color. That group would eventually bear his name. However, the legion had little impact (it was involved in many non-revolutionary activities such as musical events), and St. Georges was dismissed and imprisoned for 18 months. He was eventually released but did not resume command.
Bologne died on June 12, 1799.
Saint-Georges composed six operas throughout his later life.
His first was “Ernestine,” which premiered on July 19, 1777, at the Comédie-Italienne. The music was well-liked, but the libretto was panned as weak and the work did not enjoy a long life on stage. The score to this opera is lost, save for a few numbers.
His second opera, “La Partie Chasse” was received with far greater reverence in 1778 and it was followed by his most renowned work “L’Amant Anonyme” in 1780; the complete score for “L’Amant Anonyme” is the only one to remain in existence.”
The final three operas, “La Fille Garçon,” “Aline et Dupré,” and “Guillaume tout coeur ou les amis du village” premiered in 1787, 1788, and 1790, respectively; the scores for all of these works are lost.
He also composed several songs and other vocal music.
Watch & Listen
Here are some excerpts from his works.