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Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Symphony No. 1

The life story of Joseph Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges would make a compelling Hollywood biopic. The son of a French planter and an African slave on the island of Guadeloupe, the seven-year-old Bologne came to Paris in 1752 to begin his formal education, which included musical instruction. Six years later, he enrolled in a school run by Europe’s most famous fencing teacher, Tessier de La Boëssièr, and by age 17 Bologne had become a master fencer. After Bologne graduated from La Boëssièr’s academy, the French court made him a knight (chevalier) and a member of the King’s personal bodyguard. Concurrently, Bologne also earned a reputation for his many amorous pursuits.

In addition to his fencing expertise, Bologne was by 1769 a virtuoso violinist when he joined François-Joseph Gossec’s orchestra, Le Concert des Amateurs. Four years later, he became the orchestra’s leader. Under Bologne’s baton, Les Amateurs grew into one of Europe’s finest orchestras. Bologne’s second orchestra, Le Concert de la Loge Olympique, enjoyed an equally stellar reputation as the commissioning body for Joseph Haydn’s acclaimed “Paris” Symphonies; Bologne subsequently conducted the “Paris” symphonies’ premieres

During the French Revolution, Bologne was made colonel of the “Légion nationale des Américains & du midi.” St. Georges’ Légion, as it was known, became the first regiment in Europe composed of “free men of color.” As The Terror raged, Bologne was imprisoned and narrowly avoided the guillotine; after he was stripped of his French military rank, he sailed to Saint-Domingue (Haiti) to assist the slave rebellion there. Within two weeks of his return to Paris, Bologne busied himself forming yet another orchestra. Just before his death, he wrote, “Towards the end of my life, I was particularly devoted to my violin.”

Bologne’s affinity for string writing shines throughout the G major Symphony. In the opening Allegro, the first violins carry the lively primary theme throughout. In the strings-only Andante, once again the first violins present the main melodies, which meander sedately along. In the closing Allegro, Bologne’s style closely approximates Haydn. The melodies abound with joy, a dash of humor, and good-natured fun.

At a Glance

  • Composer: born December 25, 1745, Baillif, Guadeloupe; died June 10, 1799, Paris
  • Work composed: undocumented; c. late 1770s
  • Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings
  • Estimated duration: 13 minutes

© Elizabeth Schwartz.