Chevalier de Saint-Georges, whose extraordinary life and works have been overlooked for centuries, will be in the spotlight during Seattle Baroque Orchestra’s concert honoring the black musician/composer/athlete.
He was born to an enslaved woman and a planter in Guadaloupe in the mid-18th century. Barely more than a quarter-century later, he became concertmaster (and eventually music director) of the celebrated Paris orchestra Concert des Amateurs, dazzling audiences with his vigorous violin solos on his own compositions.
Between these incongruent landmarks, he was renowned in France as a superior teenage athlete, a champion fencer of tremendous dexterity and speed. In time, he would also be known for anti-slavery activism, as well as playing duets with Marie Antoinette and a tendency to sleep with married women.
Yet despite his accomplishments as a composer, musician, conductor and romantic hero of an improbable life, Joseph Bologne, also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is largely forgotten today.
Seattle Baroque Orchestra: ‘Le Mozart Noir’
7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3 at Nordstrom Recital Hall, at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle. (Tickets at earlymusicguild.org). Pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m. $26-$46
“I never heard his name until a year ago,” says August Denhard, executive director of Early Music Guild, which is presenting a Seattle Baroque Orchestra concert, “Le Mozart Noir,” on Feb. 3, drawing attention to the music of Saint-Georges in time for Black History Month.
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“It’s hard to find his name in reference books,” Denhard says. “He’s a forgotten composer, sidelined by history.”
“Le Mozart Noir” — “the black Mozart,” as Saint-Georges, who died in 1799, is sometimes called — will not only present a rare opportunity to hear two violin concertos by the elusive figure. The program will include an early symphony by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Symphony in F major KV Anh 223), in recognition of their likely meeting as children.
Also on the bill is Jean-Marie Leclair’s Concerto for Violin and Strings in B-flat major, an acknowledgement of unproven claims that Leclair, founder of the French violin school, taught Saint-Georges. Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major (“La Reine”), one of the Austrian composer’s so-called Paris symphonies and a work commissioned and first conducted by Saint-Georges for the orchestra Concert de la Olympique, will be performed as well.
“All these pieces circle around Saint-Georges,” says Seattle Baroque Orchestra music director Alexander Weimann, who selected his subject’s Concerto for Two Violins and Strings in G major, plus the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in C major, as representative of Saint-Georges’ technically demanding yet rewarding work.
“Le Mozart Noir” will be performed throughout the Northwest. Violinist Monica Huggett, artistic director of the Portland ensemble, will be the soloist.
The players at all these concerts, says Weimann — who learned of Saint-Georges only a few years ago — have their work cut out for them.
“His composing was radical and extreme for the time. The range for violin is just unbelievable. There is a joy in playing with the possibilities of the instrument. It’s very clear he was an absolute master.
“[The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in C-major] goes so high on the fingerboard, and the technical challenges are outstanding. I don’t see programs of his music very often, and I don’t understand why. It’s very playful and melodious, surprising and entertaining.”
A pre-concert talk by Quinton Morris, associate professor and director of chamber and instrumental music at Seattle University, will shed light on Saint-Georges’ story and music. Morris, a violinist, toured the world last year lecturing about Saint-Georges, performing his music and screening a short film on the subject, “The Breakthrough” (which won a top prize from the European Independent Film Award festival)
“On my tour, wherever I went, I heard people say, ‘I didn’t know there was a black violinist in classical music history,’” says Morris. “So many people don’t know the impact he had.”