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ClassicsOnline Home » SAINT-GEORGES: Violin Concertos No. 1, Op. 3 and Nos. 2 and 10
In an age of remarkable individuals, Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, son of a French colonial planter and a beautiful Senegalese slave, occupied a unique position as athlete, swordsman, military commander, huntsman, violin virtuoso and conductor. Though written for his own use, the violin concertos are more than vehicles for mere virtuosic display. Lyrical, expressive slow movements are flanked by often highly original outer movements, quite unlike anything still being written by Viennese composers such as Haydn, Hofmann and Dittersdorf. Had Mozart seen Saint-Georges play the brilliant Concerto No. 10 while he was in Paris in 1778, he would have heard many things in it to admire.
By Giv Cornfield, Ph.D
By Giv Cornfield, Ph.D
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (ca. 1745-1799)
Violin Concertos, Vol. 2
In an age of remarkable individuals Joseph Boulogne, le Chevalier de Saint-Georges occupies a unique position as an athlete, violin virtuoso and composer. The son of a French colonial planter and a beautiful Senegalese slave, Joseph Boulogne was born near Basse Terre, Guadeloupe, and lived for some time on an estate on St Domingue before his family finally settled in Paris in around 1749. In his early teens Saint-Georges became a pupil of the famous master of arms La Boëssière and also had riding lessons with Dugast at the Tuileries. He fought his first public fencing match in Paris with Giuseppe Gianfaldoni on 8th September 1766 and, although he lost, his opponent predicted that Saint-Georges would become the finest swordsman in Europe.
Virtually nothing is known about the musical education of Saint-Georges, although early accounts of his life claim that he had lessons with Platon, his father’s plantation manager on St Domingue, and it has been suggested that he later studied violin with Leclair and composition with Gossec in France. As the six years he spent in La Boëssière’s establishment were devoted exclusively to physical training and academic studies it has been assumed that the bulk of his musical education took place between 1758 and 1769, the year of his first professional engagement, as a violinist in Gossec’s Concert des Amateurs. It seems more than likely that Gossec encouraged Saint-Georges’s ambitions as a composer and may have offered him professional advice even if no formal pupil-teacher relationship existed. Saint-Georges made his public début as a soloist with the Concert des Amateurs in 1772, performing his two violin concertos Op. 2. When Gossec became a director of the Concert Spirituel in 1773, Saint-Georges succeeded him as musical director and leader of the Amateurs which rapidly won recognition as one of the finest orchestras in France.
In 1777 Saint-Georges made his début as an opera composer with Ernestine at the Comédie-Italienne and in the course of the same year he became affiliated to the private theatre and concerts of Mme de Montesson who was secretly married to the Duke of Orleans. Utilising Saint-Georges’s other talents, the duke put him in charge of his hunting retinue at his seat in Le Raincy.
After the disbanding of the Amateurs in January 1781, probably owing to ongoing financial problems, Saint-Georges founded the Concert de la Loge Olympique, the orchestra for whom Count d’Ogny commissioned Haydn to compose his brilliant set of six ‘Paris’ symphonies. On the death of the Duke of Orleans in 1785 Saint-Georges lost his position in the household and visited London, where he gave exhibition fencing matches at Angelo’s Academy. He returned to Paris in 1787, composed a moderately successful comedy, La fille-garçon, and resumed work with the Loge Olympique.
Within six months of the outbreak of the Revolution, the Loge Olympique was dissolved and Saint-Georges returned to England in the company of the young Duke of Orleans, Philippe-Egalité. Once again, Saint-Georges supported himself by giving exhibition fencing matches in London and, this time, fought in Brighton before the Prince of Wales. He returned to Paris in 1790, undertook a tour of northern France with the actress Louise Fusil and the horn-player Lamothe. Two years later, now resident in Lille, he became captain of the National Guard. He formed a corps of light troops in the summer of 1792 which was planned to consist of one thousand black soldiers. Known as the Légion Nationale du Midi, the corps enjoyed little military success. Saint-Georges was relieved of his command, imprisoned for eighteen months, and upon his release forbidden to live anywhere near his former legionnaires.
In the harsh economic climate of Revolutionary France Saint-Georges found life difficult in the extreme. He led a vagabond existence with Lamothe and for a time returned to St Dominque. By 1797 he was back in Paris, where he served briefly as a director of a new musical organization, the Cercle de l’Harmonie. He died in Paris in June 1799.
Saint-Georges’s relatively small musical output can perhaps be best explained by the demands on his time made by his many and varied activities. The majority of his instrumental works were published in Paris between 1772 and 1779 and include string quartets, violin concertos and symphonies concertantes. The concertos, which were written for his own use, reveal Saint-Georges to have been an exceptional player, comfortable in the execution of bravura passage work in the highest positions, and capable of agile string crossings and double-stopping in fast tempos. Louise Fusil wrote that ‘the expressiveness of his performance was his principal merit’ and indeed there is far more to his concertos than mere virtuosic display. His lyrical gifts are very apparent, especially in the slow movements which eschew the complex ornamentation typical of the early classical concerto. Although the first movements are structurally sound and well written they are perhaps a little long on occasion for the material upon which they are built, a not uncommon characteristic of the concerto as a genre. Saint-Georges favours the fashionable Rondeau finale in many of his concertos and invariably introduces appealing new thematic material in the episodes.
The three works on this recording present an interesting picture of Saint-Georges’s career as a composer of concertos. The earliest of the works, the Concerto in D major, Op. 3 No. 1, is one of a pair of concertos by Saint-Georges that was issued by the Parisian publisher Bailleux in 1773. It was probably composed for performance with the Concert des Amateurs following Saint-Georges’s enormously successful début in the previous year with the two Concertos, Op. 2. The modernity of the first movement strikes one immediately with its brisk, purposeful orchestral writing and broad, classical phrasing. It is a far cry from the old-fashioned style of concerto first movement still being written by Viennese composers such as Haydn, Hofmann and Dittersdorf and the solo writing has a brightness and freshness which is at once distinctive and highly appealing. The beautiful slow movement immediately brings to mind Louise Fusil’s praise of Saint-Georges’s expressive style of playing. The concluding Rondeau, the theme of which is in the style of an elegant minuet, conjours up vivid images of life in the ancien régime.
Concerto No. 10 in G major was probably composed reasonably close to its publication in ca 1777 and like the earlier concertos was doubtless first performed by Saint-Georges with the Amateurs. Similar in style to the earlier concertos, the work abounds with attractive melodies and impressive bravura work for the soloist. Interestingly enough, it shares its beautiful slow movement with the Concerto in A major, Op. 5 No. 2, which was written around 1800 as far as it is possible to determine. There are a few minor points of difference between the two versions although these may well represent transmission errors in the score or parts used by Sieber to prepare the print. In place of Saint-Georges’s customary rondo finale is a large-scale movement cast in the hybrid sonata-ritornello form most commonly encountered in first movements. This brilliant concerto is one of the most attractive and distinguished violin concertos of the period and had Mozart seen Saint-Georges play it while he was in Paris in 1778 he would have heard many things in it to admire.
The Concerto in D major, Op. Post. No. 2, was issued posthumously by the composer-publisher Ignaz Pleyel about the year 1800. Given Saint-Georges’s reputation and popularity in the pre-Revolutionary period it is hard to believe that he would not have published the work had it existed. From the outer movements there is little to suggest that the work was composed later than his other concertos. The extraordinary central movement, however, is quite unlike anything heard in the concertos composed in the 1770s. The gripping opening with its rhapsodic solo part gives way to a beautiful theme, written for the violin in its low and middle registers, which is then followed by a second theme, rather in the manner of one of Haydn’s sets of alternating variations. The first of these themes is then repeated with a wonderful, spirited variation in the solo part but the second theme does not return. This curious and highly original movement is followed by a sparkling rondo built around one of Saint-Georges’s most irresistible themes.
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