Saint-Georges Symphony No. 2
This Omaha Symphony performance was recorded live at the Joslyn Art Museum Witherspoon Concert Hall on September 30, 2018.
Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is the 18th century French artistic sensation and legendary talent you may have never heard of. The swordsman, violinist, composer, conductor, and close acolyte of Marie Antoinette is often dubbed "The Black Mozart," an erasure all too commonly made when history attempts to make broad contextualizations. In reality, Boulogne's career and reputation were known around the world, and even made it to the United States where President John Adams called him “the most accomplished man in Europe.”
His Symphony No. 2, a lightly orchestrated work typical of the time, is thought to have been written around 1775—hear your Omaha Symphony perform this work you should know, from wherever you are!
Fencing match between the Chevalier de Saint-Georges and the Chevalière D’Éon
by Dani Meier, Vice President of Artistic Administration and Omaha Symphony Bassist
Look, it’s just not enough to be an incredible musician these days.
Scratch that. It apparently wasn’t enough in the 18th century, where our featured composer hails from. Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, not only has the distinction of being the first known classical composer of African descent, but was in addition a virtuoso violinist, a conductor, and… the best swordsman in France. Yes. Literally the best. The program that his work opened for could have been dedicated to him: a Haydn symphony (more on that later), a double violin concerto, and an early 19th century symphony, written just 14 years after his death.
Active during the same years as Mozart – and potentially housemates at one point – Saint-Georges wrote in a style that was preferred in 18th century France: light, elegant, danceable, and well-suited for courtly settings. This reflects his upbringing but was a gentile edge on a man who fiercely defended his parentage (his father was a wealthy planter, his mother, an enslaved woman in the French colony of Guadeloupe), earned the rank of Chevalier (knight), and would go on to fight in the French Revolution. Saint-Georges would straddle dual roles for his entire life. As a composer and performer, he was adored by the likes of Marie-Antoinette, commissioned Haydn symphonies, perhaps studied with revered violinists such as Francois Gossec, and raised the Concert des Amatuers orchestra to one of the best in France. As a chevalier, he was a man of the people with a distinct code of justice and chivalry. During the French Revolution, he often had to make choices to act against former wealthy patrons. Most notable, though, is his duel with the mysterious La Chevalière D’Éon. A transgender woman who fought incredible duels against the top swordsmen of the day, D’Éon and Saint-George’s battle was captured by the painter Alexandre-Auguste Robineau. Famously, Saint-Georges is said to have given a point to D’Éon out of gallantry, but it is more likely that Saint-Georges remembered serving with D’Éon formerly in Paris and yielded out of deference. That sense of chivalry would help him continue to show his merit, talent, and derring-do in the face of baseless rejection and the chaos of 18th century France.
Like Saint-Georges, this work is seemingly effortless but brilliant, requiring extreme attention to detail across the orchestra to create a truly elegant and unified sound. Enjoy.
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