The toast of Marie Antoinette's Paris

Revival under way for Saint-Georges, `Le Mozart Noir'

Classical Music

April 03, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Picture it: Paris, 1770s. The most talked-about composer, violinist and orchestra leader in town is equally celebrated for his fencing skill and, the gossip has it, for his conquests with the highest of high society ladies.

But when he tries to get the job of director at the Paris Opera, several of the company's prima donnas send a petition against him to the queen, Marie Antionette, declaring that "their honor and the delicate nature of their conscience made it impossible for them to be subjected to the orders of a mulatto."

History has been almost as unkind to Joseph Boulogne Chevalier de Saint-Georges - the son of a slave and the first important black classical composer - who came to be nicknamed Le Mozart Noir. For the better part of two centuries, he was mostly forgotten.

But efforts to reverse this absurd neglect have begun to yield dividends. Several recordings of his work have emerged in the past few years, and a recent documentary has been aired on TV in this country and abroad.

Pro Musica Rara, Baltimore's early music champion, will include the composer's first published work today on a program called "Haydn and the Unsung Heroes of the String Quartet."

Saint-Georges (also spelled Saint-George) was not another Mozart - who could be? - and his music did not change the world. But his flair for melodic charm, instrumental color and graceful structure elegantly reflected the spirit of his time.

Saint-Georges would be worth remembering even if he had never composed a note.

He was born around 1739 on a plantation in Guadeloupe in the French West Indies. His mother was a slave, his father an aristocrat. Taken to Paris as a child, Saint-Georges made his first mark athletically, hailed as the finest swordsman in Europe.

His background kept some doors closed and some tongues wagging, but he still managed to move into the most fashionable social and cultural circles.

Saint-Georges played his own violin concertos in 1772 with one of the city's best orchestras, the Concert des Amateurs (a professional outfit, despite the name). He soon was appointed its music director.

When the Amateurs folded, Saint-Georges founded another orchestra, the Concert de la Loge Olympique, which became even more celebrated. Haydn wrote his Paris Symphonies for this ensemble while Saint-Georges was at the helm.

When the French Revolution broke out, he signed on with the fraternity-equality crowd and was appointed colonel of a troop of black soldiers that bore his name (one of his men was the father of Alexander Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers).

Saint-Georges ended up imprisoned for 18 months. After his release, he founded a new orchestra before dying in 1799.

Periodically during his life, he put down his violin or pen to pick up the sword. One high-profile match had all of London buzzing: A contest between a mulatto and a man in drag - the Chevalier d'Eon, aka Lia (that's another story).

Saint-Georges, they said, deliberately and gallantly lost. Then he went home and wrote an opera called The Girl-Boy.

The Pro Musica Rara concert will begin at 3:30 p.m. today at Towson Presbyterian Church, 400 W. Chesapeake Ave. Tickets at the door $20, $10 for students. 410-728-2820.

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