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JOSEPH BOULOGNE CHEVALIER DE SAINT-GEORGES  

(1745 - 1799)

In an age of remarkable individuals Joseph Boulogne, le Chevalier de Saint-Georges occupies a unique position as an athlete, violin virtuoso and composer. He is the archetypal romantic hero; spectacularly gifted and destined always to be the outsider, his life the stuff of legend.

The son of a former councillor in the Parlement at Metz and a negress from Guadeloupe, Joseph Boulogne was born near Basse Terre, Guadeloupe, and lived for some time on an estate on St Domingue (now Haiti) before his family finally settled in Paris in around 1749. At the age of 13 Saint-Georges became a pupil of La Boëssière, a master of arms, and also had riding lessons with Dugast at the Tuileries. He fought his first public fencing match in Paris with Giuseppe Gianfaldoni on 8 September 1766 and although he lost his opponent predicted that Saint-Georges would become the finest swordsman in Europe.

Of his musical education we know very little. In old accounts of his life it is claimed that he had lessons with his father’s plantation manager Platon on St Domingue and it has also been suggested that he studied the violin with Leclair and composition with Gossec in France. In view of his long professional association with Gossec it is quite likely that he received a good deal of advice from him in his early career. As the six years he spent in La Boëssière’s establishment were devoted exclusively to physical training and academic studies it has been assumed that the bulk of Saint-Georges’ musical education took place between 1758 and 1769, the year of his first professional engagement, as a violinist in Gossec’s Concert des Amateurs. He made his public début as a soloist with the Concert des Amateurs in 1772, performing his two violin concertos op.2. When Gossec became a director of the Concert Spirituel in 1773, Saint-Georges succeeded him as musical director and leader of the Amateurs which rapidly won recognition as one of the finest orchestras in France.

In 1777 Saint-Georges made his début as an opera composer with Ernestine at the Comédie-Italienne. As is the case with many composers, the dramatic flair which served him so well in instrumental music proved largely unsuited to the theatre. In the course of the same year he became affiliated to the private theatre and concerts of Mme de Montesson who was secretly married to the Duke of Orleans. Utilising Saint-Georges’ other talents, the duke put him in charge of his hunting retinue at his seat in Le Raincy.

After the disbanding of the Amateurs in January 1781, probably due to financial problems, Saint-Georges founded the Concert de la Loge Olympique, the orchestra for whom Count d’Ogny commissioned Haydn to compose his brilliant set of six ‘Paris’ symphonies. On the death of the Duke of Orleans in 1785 Saint-Georges lost his position in the household and visited London where he gave exhibition fencing matches at Angelo’s Academy. He returned to Paris in 1787, composed a moderately successful comedy, La fille-garçon, and resumed work with the Loge Olympique.

Within six months of the outbreak of the Revolution, the Loge Olympique was dissolved and Saint-Georges returned to England in the company of the young Duke of Orleans, Philippe-Egalité. Once again, Saint-Georges supported himself by giving exhibition fencing matches in London and, this time, in Brighton, before the Prince of Wales. He returned to Paris in 1790 but finding the state of affairs unsatisfactory undertook a tour of northern France with the actress Louise Fusil and the horn player Lamothe. He took up official residence in Lille in 1792 where he became captain of the National Guard. In his desire to take a more active part in the Revolution Saint-Georges formed a corps of light troops in the summer of 1792, which was to planned to comprise 1000 blacks. Known as the Légion Nationale du Midi, the corps enjoyed little military success. Saint-Georges was relieved of his command, imprisoned for 18 months, and on his release forbidden to live near his former comrades.

Unemployed again, Saint-Georges led a vagabond existence with Lamothe and lived for a time on St Dominque. Around 1797 he returned to Paris where he served briefly as a director of a new musical organization, the Cercle de l’Harmonie, based in the former residence of the Orleans family. He died in Paris in June 1799.

Allan Badley

Role: Classical Composer 
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