top of page

Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Violin Concertos Nos. 2 & 9

Jean-Jacques Kantorow, violin
L'Orchestre de Chambre Bernard Thomas
Bernard Thomas, conductor

orpheus track listing.jpg
VIOLIN CONCERTO in G MAJOR, OP. VIII, No. 9, G. 050 Allegro (9:29) Largo (7:55) Rondeaux (3:31) VIOLIN CONCERTO in A MAJOR, OP. V, No. 2, G. 032 Allegro moderato (9:41) Largo (7:44) Rondeaux (4:48) Jean-Jacques Kanterow, violin L'Orchestre de Chambre Bernard Thomas Bernard Thomas, conductor History during the second half of the 18th century describes the gradual downfall of a privileged society: corrupt, bored, and disillusioned. “On aneantit son proper caractere dans la crainte d’attierer les regards et l’attention et on se preceipite dans la nullite, pour echapper au danger d’etre peint” wrote C'amfort, one of the moralist commentators who cutting]y witnessed the spectacle. This world on show found comfort in optimism, often bitterly ironic. The gregarious instinct which prevails on the eve of a revolution would appear to explain in part the taste for the theatre and the public concert at this time. The foundation in Paris of the Concert spiritual in 1725 deeply modified the relations between musicians and public, and many European countries imitated this enterprising innovation. The Concert spirituel was, together with the Opera, and up until the revolution, the element which regulated musical life, and many concert societies were organized in competition: the Concert des Amateurs from 1769. and the Concert de la Loge Olympique among others, without counting: the private concerts such as those held by Mme. de Prie, the Prince de Conti, (where Mozart performed as a child), the duc d'Aiguillon, and most important those of the Fermier general La Poupliniere which helped to fortify the growth of the new form of the symphony. The form of the concerto opposing soloist and orchestra was particularly popular with the “melophiletes” (as music-lovers were called at this time). The taste of the public much stimulated the members of the French school of violinists, after first being attracted to the Italians, Corelli. Vivaldi and many others. A list of these violinists would be pointless here. Let it be sufficient to mention the name of the muse famous figure of this school: Jean-Marie Leclair (I). After his death. the fashion for the concerto and sonata only increased. It was marked by a change of style in the works of these violinist/composers towards the romance and the opera-comique ariette, characterized by an easy-going gallant charm. From out of the background of a society gradually going to ruin. singular personalities can be remarked. For example, Pierre Garon de Beaumarchais. the chevalier d'Eon. and the chevalier de Saint-Georges. Many other such personalities, revolved around a court intoxicated by refined luxury in the exercise of their respective talents. ln a world of appearances. false confidence, games of love and chance, the strength of these individuals was in the variety of their gifts and the supreme ability they possessed to be rarely themselves at the moment when one would have expected them to be. The art of disguise and changing personality enabled them to move easily in a society which was slowly wearing itself out with pleasure. The reign of the factotum. of Frontin and Figaro, the new masters, was drawing near. Nature in some instances was pleased to associate the disturbing charm of uncertain appearances with these tendencies. There is no need to go into the mysterious identity of the chevalier d'Eon, but on the other hand it would seem useful to say that one of the most picturesque characters of the second half of the 18th century was Joseph Boulogne. chevalier de Saint- Georges, who added to his natural charm the attraction (appreciated in varying degrees) of being of mixed race. Roger de Beauvoir has devoted four volumes to the adventures of this fabulous character, and they were hardly enough. His birth was the result of a love affair between M. de Boulogne, controleur general de la Guadeloupe, and Nanon, one of the most beautiful women on the island, we are told. It seems that the child was born in 1739 and not on Christmas Day 1745 as it has often been stated, even though Saint-Georges was of this opinion himself. His father possessed lands in Guadeloupe, and San Domingo where he was baptized. He was given the picturesque name of Saint-Georges, after a handsome vessel anchored in the roads. It is said that already at the age of ten he amazed his tutors with his ability to learn. Before his musical gifts became apparent. He showed a remarkable aptitude for sport. At 15. He beat the strongest fencing opponents. It is thought that it was at about this time that he came to France and settled in Paris, where his superiority in shooting. skating, riding and dancing did not go unnoticed. He swam jn the Seine with one arm only. and even in winter! We possess very little information about the musical education of Saine-George. It is supposed that while in Guadeloupe, he received lessons from a mediocre musician named Platon. It has not been proved that he ,studied with Leclair, but it seems much more likely that he recieved lessons in composition from Gossec. In any case. the duellist-violinist did not publish his first works untiI late on, and until this moment was chiefly known for his exploits with the epee. In September 1766, he measured himself against the famous Italian Faldoni, who had journeyed specially to Paris in order to provoke the brilliant mulatre. The latter first of all refused. but encouraged by his friends, he was persuaded that it was a question of honour, and finally accepted. Although the winner. Faldoni declared that his opponent was astonishingly quick. and of unbelievable precision. with impenetrable parrying. His fencing successes made of Saint-Georges “un homme il la mode”, constantly surrounded by a circle of friends. The lively “gendarme de la garde du roi” that he was from 1761, was a man of fencing matches. lady-killing, suppers and gallant adventures. On his father's death he received 8000 livres of rents. He spent without thinking, led a luxurious life, and it wasn’t until about I 770, that he seems to have begun to think seriously about music, even though his first works, six string quartets, had appeared in 1765. During the winter of 1772- 1773. he organized the Concert des Amateurs taking over from Gosscc who had founded these concerts three years previously. It was there that Saint-Georges performed two of his own violin concertos, published in December 1773. From this time and for fifteen years, the chevalier played an important part in Parisian musical life, both as a violinist. composer and conductor. lt must not be forgotten that it was he who negotiated with Haydn on the subject of 6 symphonies, called today “Parisiennes” and intended for the Concert de la Loge Olympique. In 1775 he obtained a privilege for six years for the publication of his works by Bailleux. His production flowed steadily. However, his success as a violinist does not seem to have satisfied him and he turned towards the theatre. He almost became codirector of the Opera. but this Don Juan was of mixed race. and the singers of the ensemble academie royale resorted to the question of honour in order to djssuade the authorities from allowing a mulatto to become codirector. Saint-Georges prcsented at the Comedie italienne his first piece interspersed with ariettes entitled. Ernestine, a debut encouraged by the public which was to continue up to the revolution. It was around this time (1777) that he was noticed by Mme de Montasson, wife of the duc d'Orleans. who took him into his household. Two years later. doubtless a victim of jealousy, he almost perished in a plot, the circumstances of which have never been completely established. It would seem that the assailants were the police themselves, and that afterwards they asked the duc d'Orleans to hush up the affair! Continuing to lead an expensive life, frequenting salons and boudoirs, Saint-Georges worked just as energetically, producing for the comedie, composing quartets, concertos, sinfonie concertantes with which he enjoyed much success. The death of the duc d'Orleans in 1785 marked for him a change of fortune. He put aside his violin. took up his sword, and once more gained many fencing victories. From 1786- 1787 he made his first visit to London where he was welcomed as a hero. His arrival had been preceded by another French musician. Philidor, who had spread his reputation. The whole of the English high society, including the Prince of Wales. applauded his exploits. In the spring of 1787 he fought the chevalier d'Eon (or chevaliere?) and it is possible that the match against this bi-sexual opponent was the inspiration for his comic opera la Fille garcon, produced in Paris at the Comedie italienne on the following August 18th, 1789. The Revolution. Our hero followed the Orleans family into exile and returned to London where he probably played a part in the various political intrigues. He ran into his fnend Henry Angelo in London, the author of valuable souvenirs, and to whom Saint-Georges offered his portrait which had been painted by Mather Brown during his first visit. He continued his extravagant life of excess. Thus he remained throughout his life a gay companion, madly generous, full of sincerity and polished manners. Short of money, he was obliged to return to Paris in the foJlowing year. He openly supported the revolution. He organized in the North of France a series of concerts which were partly a failure, above all in Tournai, where the opposition came from refugees hostile to the ideas of Philippe d'Egalite. Saint-Georges was appointed “capitaine de la Garde nationale", and under his title was living in Lille in 1791. Determined to associate himself more closely with the revolutionary combat, he formed in 1792 a group uniting black men, the “Hussards americaines”, later to be attached to the 13eme regiment de chasseurs. This company known as the Legion Saint- Georges received the official title of Legion nationale du Midi. Alexandre Dumas Davy, the father of the author of the Three Musketeers. was to distinguish himself in this body. During 1793, the Legion Saint-Georges was active against the hostilities in Amiens. then in Laon before being called co the Belgian campagne. The spirit of the period was however one of suspicion and slander. Doubtless remembering his luxurious past the Commissaire du pouvoir executif in his report to the Assemblee declared that Saint-Georges was a man to be watched, playing a luxury that was insolent, and that the money allotted to the needs of the Legion was used to pay off his debts. The revolutionary tribunal suspended him from office. Saint· Georges was imprisoned for a year at Houdainville near Clermont-sur-Oise. In spite of the proof he had given of his faith in the revolutionary cause, he found himself a victim of injustice. An inquest was held, and he so eloquently pleaded his case that during Floreal An III, he was restored to his functions. Rivalry between the various pretending commanders of the I 3eme regiment resulted in his being indefinitely suspended, although he pleaded before the Directoire. He then led the life of a vagabond, and accompanied by his faithful friend Lamothe, they embarked on a vessel bound for San Domingo, then in the throes of a revolution! Thus Saint-Georges made his last voyage to his far-off native land. Returning to Paris. his existence was somewhat discreet, almost miserable, in spite of his concern for elegance. Once again, his time was totally occupied by music. When the Cercle d’Harmonie was founded in 1797 at the Palais Royal, the former colonel of the Hussars was anxious to take part. He was responsible for the concerts which “left nothing to be desired as regards choice of works and superior performance”. He was living in a modest apartment in the Marais district. Certain of his friends declared that the walls of his alcove were covered with women’s letters, reminders of a brilliant past which he frequently reviled! It was at this moment that this most gifted and seductive personality, who scorned wealth and considered that his possessions belonged to others, died on June 10th 1799, above all faithful to Music. THE CONCERTOS His contemporaries were in agreement as regards his elegance, purity, expression, his talent “moelleux”, an adjective used by many of them to describe him. A chronicler added “His superiority on the violin sometimes gave him preference over the most accomplished artists of his time.” I remember, after hearing a performance of a fine sinfonia concertante for 2 violins by Saint-Georges, the following comment: “He is influenced by Mozart.” In order to establish the truth, it must be stated that Saint- Georges remains, it is too often forgotten today, one of the principal exponents of the French style of the sinfonia concertante and the violin concerto and it was on the contrary, Mozart, with his extraordinary genius for integrating new ideas, who introduced the quintessence of what he had learned from the Parisian violinists influenced by the Mannheim school, into his own violin concertos. The circumstances were those of his second visit. Nevertheless. the aristocratic quality of Saint-Georges invention, the variety and suppleness, made of him a musician similar to Mozart, with all due consideration. In his book entitled L'Ecole francaise de violon de Lully a Viotti Lionel de La Laurencic shows precisely with examples to what extent the style of writing of the chevalier is developed and audacious, never falling into the trap of vain technical prowess: wide intervals, striking positions, bravura passages help to make his works intensely alive and irresistibly bristling. Saint-Georges. a natural genius, naturally refined, cannot be more suitably compared to ano1her Fn:nch musician than to Boieldieu. He too wrote with great ease, too much science in both cases would certainly have been detrimental. These unjustly neglected concertos are like an excellent bottle of champagne. and sometimes really moving. He wrote a dozen violin concertos, all most interesting. The solo part is accompanied by strings, 2 flutes or 2 oboes and 1 horns ad libitum as was the custom at the time. The version recorded here and performed according to the original editions conserved at the “Bibliothcque nationale” makes use of the choice left by the composer, and no wind instruments are used. The Second concerto in A major, Op. 5, published in 1775 is in the traditional three movement form. The Allegro, well developed and constructed, begins with a robust theme: the second lyrical subject is in the same key and brings a note of sadness. The violin makes use of variation technique in the Development. A fine Largo in D major follows: it is in binary form and influenced by the atmosphere of opera comique, the singer on this occasion being the violin. The Rondo, in the main key, has all the liveliness of a movement by Mozart. The episode in the minor, pre-romantic in feeling, has the pastoral flavour of a musette cleverly rendered by the holding of an open fifth (A - E) in the second violins, while the solo instrument decorates with a perpetual motion pattern of semiquavers. This delightful touch referring to the fashion for “bergeries” during Louis XV's reign, is common in French music of the period, and its happy effect was employed by Mozart in the finale of his D major violin concerto (K. 218). The Concerto No. 9 in G Major Op. 8 appeared separately and without a date. It is in fact the twelfth and last of the concertos. An accomplished work, rich in content, and also in three movements. The Allegro, with its resolute theme is followed by a second subject in the dominant, of a Mozartian grace. A forceful tutti introduces the soloist. The glib violin part is punctuated by tutti passages. which “sound" admirably, this being due to the use of divided strings for the chords. The Largo in G minor (3/4) is certainly one of Saint-Georges' finest movements, making of him a musician of the first rank. The movement is in fact a romance of a wistful character, intense. almost funereal. The solo part sings with passion and sadness throughout. The finale. a Rondo irresistibly alive, the violin once again brilliantly to the fore. The composer skillfully uses pizzicato in the bass during the episode in the minor. None will deny that the interest of these works is in the balance achieved between soli and tutti, the elegance of the writing (expressive use of unison passages, dramatic tremolos, divided strings), the ever-present contrast between piano and forte. The aristocratic meaning of the word amateur at that time, a word which perfectly describes the chevalier de Saint-Georges, has an unflattering sense today which can not in any way be applied to his music. The privilege which he shared with Tartini for having been an equally courageous duellist and virtuoso, must not be allowed to mar his ability as a composer. The chevalier de Saint-Georges showed in his life-time that he was a man of many talents, but with a single passion: Music.
orpheus track listing.jpg

Scroll through the widget to the left and you'll be able to find links to this recording on the major streaming and downloading services, including Apple Music, YouTube, Amazon Music and Spotify.

orpheus - restored

bottom of page