Monday, December 31, 2007

The good Monsieur de Saint-George and his violins

Monsieur Joseph de Saint George, a black French composer, was born in Guadeloupe in 1739 as the son of a French land-owner and an African mother. Unlike the unfortunate offspring of many other such liaisons this family was together and young Joseph received an aristocratic education in France, where the family relocated when he was 10 years old. He became a fine horseman and fencer, and it is suggested he received violin lessons from Jean Marie Leclair.

In 1773 he took over the orchestra known as 'Concert des Amateurs' and turned it to one of the best in Europe. Later he became the first non-white freemason, and took an interest in the revolution (despite having been favoured by Marie Antoinette as a potential opera director at one stage). He formed a regiment of black volunteers to fight against the coalition troups and became the first black Colonel of the French army. He was then arrested during 'the terror' for being a friend of the Duke of Orleans, and spent 11 months on death row, until Robbespierre fell; after which he regained his fame and carried on with his musical activities, finally dying in June 1799. In 1802 Napoleon brought back slavery and his works were banned from the repertoire he had written 215 in his spare time..... (One can guess that the CD notes were written by a French person, no?).

A French author, Alain Guede, wrote a book about Saint George in the late 1990s, following from which a society, 'Le Concert de Monsieur de Saint-George', was formed for the restoration of Saint George 'to his rightful place among composers'. It apparently provides free scores to those who want them, and has a website. Unfortunately there do not appear to be any viola works...

This CD (thanks, fonoforum for this) is difficult to track down, though amazon.de has it. It consists of 4 violin concertos, including a sinfonia concertante for two violins and orchestra. They are played by three different violinists, Bertrand Cervera, Christophe Guiot, and Thibault (what a first name for a violinist, no?) Vieux, to allow the adoring public access to different interpretations of his music. Not sure why they described it as 'la langueur créole du Voltaire de la musique' - there's not much languor about it.

The music is wonderful! First when I heard it I thought it was a bit simple, but actually it's great fun. Very elegant, like French music of that period, usually is, and there's a bit of an overuse of plucked bass (particularly in the sinfonia concertante, but it's sooo delightful!), but it's great fun (yes, it's French music that I like!). Occasionally some clichéd use of octave transposition slips in, but generally it's quite virtuosic music and would be a great addition to the teaching repertoire, so tired old violin professors don't always have to listen to the same Mozart concertos. Very solidly from Classical Central, though the soloist gets to play more than in a typical Mozart concerto. (When Mozart was in the depths of depression in Paris in 1778 following the death of his mother, he could find no-one interested in his music - Saint George had bagged all the attention).

The performances are generally enthusiastic, one of the soloists suffers a little from intonation and rushing at things, but overall it's a great set of recordings, and a real find. Saint George's music should really be played much more, and not just as the token black of classical music. It's not as if he was the only one - the chap who inspired the Kreutzer sonata (not Mr Kreutzer) was also a black violinist named Bridgetower. I am sorry to say I discovered this by going via an absolutely disgustingly racist site (it should be exposed, it's the Stormfront White Community here - though at least it allows for opposing views), which lead me to this very interesting site, on African heritage in Classical Music.

And there was the British chap, what's his name again? Didn't Philippe Graffin record his violin concerto?

Shame though that this is still a matter for debate. Noone talks about woman musicians nowadays, unless they are conductors.....