Saturday, February 28, 2015

Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges – Black Composer Series vol. 1

   Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1739-1799) was one of first known classical composers of African origins. In earlier generation we know the other two: Brazilian composer of religious baroque music Inácio Parreiras Neves (1730-1791) and Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), who was English composer, actor and writer. But it was Chevalier de Saint-Georges who was the first successful and recognized composer of African ancestry. He was also famous as virtuoso violinist. His composing style was compared to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn and for the reason of clear classical style he was called “le Mozart noir”. He was also successful fencer and boxer developing his leadership abilities and a military career during the French Revolution. He achieved the rank of colonel and became a commander of ‘La Legion De Saint-George’ which in fact was his own army forces. He was also active member of Masonic lodge and a favorite personage in social spheres of the capital of France.
   Born in Guadeloupe as a son of wealthy planter and African slave, when he was 7 year old his father took him to France for a military education. In 1766 he became gendarme du roi (officer of king’s guard) and a received the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Probably he studied violin since his early childhood. There are no indications for his studies in music but his achievements and performing skills prove he was learning for years. When he was 25 years old he was already recognized as violin virtuoso and Antonio Lolli (1725-1802) composed for Joseph Bologne two concertos. Two years later François Gossec (1734-1829) dedicated him Six Trios. In next few years he became sensation as an author of his own compositions. He composed at least 6 opera comiques, songs, arias, canzonettas, 14 violin concertos, 8 symphonies concertantes, 2 symphonies, third symphony has been preserved only in piano reduction, sonatas for various instruments and 18 string quartets.

Black Composer Series vol. 1 (1974)

   For many years compositions of Chevalier de Saint-Georges were neglected, even if remembered, not mentioned enough. Real interest for his works grew up in first decade of 21st century when some recordings were released and his music was played by many philharmonic orchestras. One of earliest editions was an album of profiling selection of this composer published by Columbia Masterworks. Its program comprised four pieces, Symphony No. 1 in G Major, Op. 11, No. 1, String Quartet No. 1 in C Major, Op. 1, No. 1, Symphonie Concertante in G Major for Two Violins and Orchestra, Op. 13 with soloists Miriam Fried and Jaime Laredo. Scene from Opera “Ernestine” sung by Faye Robinson closes this choice with strong dramatic impression. The String Quartet was played by The Julliard Quartet. All other selections were played by London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul Freeman.
   Perfect renditions show classical style of Joseph Bologne as balanced and inventive. Nice and modest style of classical forms was perfect for his scope of expression. In particular Symphonie Concertante shows original and gentle personality. More comprehensive formal approach one can find in String Quartet. This significant presentation of Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ music had been released in 1974 as the volume one of the Black Composer Series. Whole project was supported by The Afro-American Music Opportunities Association, the organization established in 1969 as an institutional assistance for creative activities of black composers and performers. The idea of collection was to publish comprehensive set of composers with African roots and their music from classicism to contemporary. This ambitious project featured also Afro-American soloists and conductors. For the first album of this great series we need to draw three and a half stars.

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