Portrait c. 1787 of composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), dubbed “Le Mozart Noir”
On July 21 the Carmel Bach Festival Chamber Concert, Mozart in Paris at 2:30 pm at All Saints Church, introduced many of us to an intriguing classical composer about whom we had never heard, known as Le Mozart Noir. From the program notes written by Allan Whear, found on page 170 of the 2017 CBF program book, “Saint-Georges is without a doubt one of the most fascinating characters in music history, worthy of a romantic novel or Hollywood screenplay. Born on the Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe, he was the son of a Senegalese slave [Nanon], and a French plantation owner. His father, *George Bologne de Saint-Georges, became wealthy raising sugar cane in the New World, and returned to Paris [with his son and Nanon] to become a minor aristocrat.” Saint-Georges was brought up as a gentleman in Paris and received musical training in violin and composition.As a young man, he led orchestras, published a body of instrumental and vocal works, and premiered his own compositions while becoming quite well-known in musical and aristocratic circles. “He also excelled at fencing, becoming known as the finest swordsman in France.” The most famous image of Saint-Georges is a dashing portrait of the composer portrayed with a sword, painted in 1787 by Mather Brown.
Whear goes on to write, “Saint-Georges’ fame gained him admission to the highest echelons of aristocratic society. He was musical advisor to Queen Marie-Antoinette and counted the Duc d’Orléans and the Price of Wales among his friends. French law did not permit a mulatto to marry, but Saint-Georges’ reputation as a lover was legendary – it was said that at night he ‘rested on a pillow filled with locks of hair from his conquests.’ Imagine him among the decadent characters of Dangerous Liaisons. In fact, the author of the work, Choderlos de Laclos, was a close friend of Saint-Georges, and furnished the libretto for his first opera, Ernestine.”
Patrick Jordan, Karina Schmitz, Patricia Ahern, Cynthia Roberts,
Allen Whear, Timothy Roberts
Quartet No. 5 in G Major from Quatuors Concertantes (1777) “follows the two-movement format of a fast movement (Allegro assai) followed by a simple rondo or variations movement (Gratioso), all intended to elegantly entertain.” Upbeat, lively, and cheerful, blindfolded you would swear it were Mozart. Cynthia Roberts and Patricia Ahern, violin, Patrick Jordan, viola, and Allen Whear, cello, all succeeded, indeed, to elegantly entertain.
Next, we learned about the prolific Italian composer who settled in Paris, Giuseppe Maria Cambini (1746-1825) and his plethora of string quartets and quintets. Before hearing the uncannily Mozart-like Larghetto affettuoso and Presto from Cambini’s Quintet No. 84 in D Major, Mr. Whear joked that if the CBF (celebrating 80 years this year) had done a Cambini quintet every year, that would have been only eighty of them and there would still be decades of quintets left! Timothy Roberts, cello, joined the group to make the quintet.
A funny thing happens when you place a few composers who sound like Mozart on the program first – when you finally get to the actual Mozart, it is not quite as Mozartian as you had hoped! This may have been because the work used, Grand Sestetto Concertante, was an anonymous 19th century arrangement of the original Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major, K. 364. This 1808 transcription for string sextet was, “a practice quite common at the time, when there was a great demand for domestic versions of large-scale works. This arrangement features not just the original solo violin and viola, but spreads the concertante principal among five of the six instruments, even in Mozart’s original cadenzas.” The effect being, one instrument would start a phrase, then another would pick it up and finish it; much of the piece proceeded in this fashion, passing the tunes of the three Allegro Maestoso, Andante, and Presto movements around like a relay race. Karina Schmitz, viola, joined the group to make the “sestetto.”
However, the real stand-out performance of this chamber concert was to be introduced to the dashing Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges! Off to find one of his lost arias to learn…
*Note: According to the Wikipedia entry on Chevalier de Saint-Georges, there appears to be a common piece of misinformation regarding the composer’s parentage:
Misled by Roger de Beauvoir’s 1840 romantic novel Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, most of his biographers confused Joseph’s father with Guillaume-Pierre de Boullogne, Controller of Finance, whose family was ennobled in the 15th century. This led to the erroneous spelling of Saint-Georges’ family name as “Boulogne,” persisting to this day, even in the BnF, Bibliothèque nationale de France.
His father’s name was actually George Bologne de Saint-Georges. This reviewer has corrected the spelling and names that appeared in the CBF program. Also, the question as to whether Mozart and Saint-Georges ever met is unclear, as the program notes state that there is no record of it, however research indicates that they more than likely, did, in fact, meet as the two were guests at the same time for two months in the ducal mansion on the Chaussée d’Antin in Paris in the late 1770s. Notwithstanding that Wikipedia can be a quick and useful go-to research site, a thorough and scholarly studying of this composer is clearly in order.