The Chevalier de Saint-Georges, born Joseph Bologne, was the son of an African slave and a French plantation owner on the island of Guadeloupe. The story of his improbable rise in French society, his life as a famous fencer, celebrated violinist-composer and conductor, and later commander of a colored regiment in the French Revolution, should, on the facts alone, gladden the heart of the most passionate romance novelist. Yet, the information disseminated about this illustre inconnu is found in an extravagant nineteenth-century novel, which contains more fiction than fact. Unfortunately, many of the author’s flights of fancy have found their way into serious works about Saint-Georges. Gabriel Banat has set about systematically dispelling the confusion, for the real story is easily as fascinating as any flight of fancy. Gabriel Banat has been a professional violinist all his life; recitalist and member of the New York Philharmonic, he has systematically scoured the violin repertory for interesting and even unknown music. He came across the works of St. Georges and was fascinated by the freshness and charm of these 18th-century compositions. Eventually, he edited a critical edition of all the violin music and, inevitably, began a systematic investigation into the life of this intriguing and multifaceted individual, utilizing archives of the French Land Army, official clippings and untapped personal diaries of St. Georges’ contemporaries. Banat is the author of an authoritative monograph on St. Georges in the Black Music Research Journal.
January 11, 2008
A Swashbuckling Violinist, Fresh From the 1700s
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. (His second symphony will be performed on April 12 and 13 by the Stamford Symphony Orchestra at the Palace Theater in Stamford.)
Mr. Banat, who had an acclaimed solo career before becoming a 23-year member of the New York Philharmonic, considers Saint-Georges the first significant black classical composer. 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.
Born as Joseph Boulogne, Saint-Georges took part of his title from his father, George Bologne de Saint-Georges, and became a chevalier when he was appointed a Versailles guard-on-horseback by Louis XV. Known for his striking looks, sweet temperament and swashbuckling ventures, he became the subject of a 19th-century romance novel that spawned distortions of his life in later biographies, according to Mr. Banat.
Some of the more innocuous errors about him, Mr. Banat notes in the preface to his biography, include "the year of his birth, the identity of his father, the spelling of his family name and the place where he spent his childhood." Mr. Banat said that legends of Saint-Georges being a "ladykiller" and Marie Antoinette's lover were "tinged with racism" because of their insinuations about black male sexuality. Nor, he said, was Saint-Georges the queen's music teacher.
Mr. Banat said he first heard of Saint-Georges in the 1970s while browsing in the New York Public Library for new material for his recitals. "I picked up a score and said, `Who is this lovely Saint-Georges?' "he recalled.
Mr. Banat said he wanted to delve deeper, especially after learning of the composer's difficulties as a person of mixed race - Saint-Georges could not marry within his social group, and although he led a prestigious orchestra that gave the premieres of several Haydn symphonies, he was denied the position of director of the Paris Opera. "As a young Jewish boy violinist, I had to fight against discrimination, and I felt empathy for him," said Mr. Banat, who was born in Romania, trained as a violinist in Hungary and spent much of World War II in hiding before coming to the United States in 1946.
Although Mr. Banat's book was published more than a year ago, Saint-Georges is still on his mind. "Chevalier," a film about Saint-Georges is now in development by Griot Pictures Entertainment and is scheduled to start production later this year. Mr. Banat says he is concerned about how the composer will be portrayed.
Thomas Hopkins, the film's producer, said the movie would take some liberties as a biopic, but that it would not "overstate the historical facts." "It's not a documentary," he said noting that the story was mainly about "a guy who was born an aristocrat and became a revolutionary."
The New York Times