Notes by Christopher H. Gibbs, Artistic Codirector of the Bard Music Festival
The illegitimate son of Nanon, a Senegalese slave, and George Bologne, a plantation owner in the South Caribbean, Joseph Bologne benefited from opportunities, experiences, and an elite education that allowed his multiple gifts, not limited to musical ones, to thrive. Among the many gaps in biographical information about him is when he was born, perhaps on Christmas Day in 1745, on a small island in the archipelago of Guadeloupe. After being falsely accused of murder, George fled to France with his family, taking along Nanon and their young son.
The talent that first brought the teenage Joseph attention was in athletics, most notably fencing, which proved an entrée into high society and led King Louis XV to name him the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. While not much is known of his musical training, by his mid-20s he was playing in the newly formed Concert des Amateurs. He soon became concertmaster, eventually music director, and helped elevate the orchestra to one of the continent’s best. In 1772 he was featured soloist with the ensemble performing his technically challenging violin concertos, Op. 2. The pace of his composing increased, primarily instrumental music, including string quartets, sonatas, violin concertos, and ten symphonies concertantes, a new Parisian genre. Pieces dedicated to him by prominent musicians of the time, including Antonio Lolli, François-Joseph Gossec, and Carl Stamitz, suggest the high esteem in which he was held. In a diary entry from May 1779, John Adams (the future American president, who had just completed duty as Envoy to France) called him “the most Accomplished man in Europe in riding, running, dancing, music.”
When Saint-Georges began to switch his energies to composing operas he faced obstacles in that arena due to racist singers who objected to having to “submit to the orders of a mulatto.” After the Concert des Amateurs folded for financial reasons, Saint-Georges joined the Concert de la Loge Olympique, the orchestra that commissioned Haydn’s six so-called Paris symphonies, of which he helped arrange the premieres. His career continued to mix athletics and music, and added military service amidst the French Revolution, joining the National Guard and for some 18 months being a prisoner during the Reign of Terror.
The designation symphonie concertante (or sinfonia concertante in Italian) gives a good idea of its form: a combination of symphony and concerto. The genre was popular in the late-18th and early-19th centuries and to some extent derived from the earlier Baroque concerto grosso. Part symphony, part concerto (more the latter), such pieces prominently offer two, three, four, or more soloists who relate to one 5 another to a greater degree than to the full ensemble. The prominence and independence of the soloists are central. In Saint-Georges’ two-movement Symphonie Concertante in G Major, Op. 13, there are two violin soloists. Mozart wrote several such pieces, the most famous being in E-flat major (K. 364) featuring violin and viola, which biographer Gabriel Banat believes owes a debt to Saint-Georges. The two composers lived in the same house in Paris in 1778 and must have known each other’s music.