One of the most fascinating figures of the 18th century was the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a composer, violinist, fencing champion and military hero whose fame spanned continents. That he was black, born in 1745 to a white planter and his slave mistress in Guadeloupe, not only shaped his life in France but has fed a growing interest in him today.

Though Saint-Georges’s life reads like a Hollywood screenplay, it was his musical talent that most interested Gabriel Banat, a concert violinist and musicologist whose biography, “The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow,” was published by Pendragon Press in 2006.

“He’s not a Mozart, but his innovative violin technique makes him a bridge between Italian virtuosos like Vivaldi and Locatelli and Beethoven in his violin writing,” Mr. Banat said in an interview in his home here. “He did a lot for the violin in bringing Italian virtuoso technique to the great masters.”

Saint-Georges, who died in 1799, wrote 14 violin concertos, 8 symphony concertantes and 5 operas, among other works.

 Now retired, Mr. Banat, 81, has spent years researching and writing about Saint-Georges, who made music in the court of Marie Antoinette and went on to lead a regiment of black soldiers in the French Revolution.


A Swashbuckling Violinist, Fresh From the 1700s

[Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Print after Mather Brown, France, c. 1790s]

Watercolor of Henry Angelo’s Fencing Academy, by Thomas Rowlandson, 1787. The Chevalier St. George’s portrait, foils, and fencing shoes are displayed on the right wall.

Bradshaw/Ward (after Mather Brown)

‘Monsieur de St. George’ [Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges,  1745 – 1799] 

England (1788)

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (25 December 1745 – 10 June 1799) was a champion fencer, a virtuoso violinist and conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris.

Born in Guadeloupe, he was the son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy planter, and Nanon, his African slave. During the French Revolution, Saint-Georges was colonel of the 'Legion St.-Georges,’ the first all-black regiment in Europe, fighting on the side of the Republic. Today he is best remembered as the first classical composer of African ancestry (Wiki extract).

Below the portrait is the caption: 'From an Original Picture at W.H. Angelo’s Academy’, and a commendatory verse in French on the talents and character of the sitter. Domenico Angelo established a well-known fencing academy at Carlisle House, Soho, in the early 1760s, which his son Henry [Charles William] Angelo - who also wrote some notable memoirs - ran from 1780. This is presumably the 'W.H. Angelo’s Academy’ mentioned as location of the original oil portrait by Mather Brown at the time this print was made. Brown’s portrait of Henry Angelo himself in similar pose, c. 1790, is in the National Portrait Gallery.

-Royal Museums, Greenwich


Black Musicians Throughout History

This week on TLG, we are supporting Black History Month with a video that will hopefully get more discussion about an oft-overlooked group of classical musicians.

Thank you all for your support so far, and please do keep this conversation going!