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It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday! (Or it was a few minutes ago. Oh well.)

This week, we're stepping back from our recent diet of 20th century and late Romantic music and going all the way to the Classical period, to the composer known as the "Black Mozart" -- a name that is rather inappropriate because he was one of France's leading musicians long before Mozart reached artistic maturity. Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) was born in the French colony of Guadeloupe, the son of a planter and an African slave. He was evidently treated as his father's legitimate heir; he was sent to Paris and received the finest possible education. He enrolled at the royal military academy, and upon graduation became an officer of the king's bodyguard and was knighted with the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Early in his career, Saint-Georges was known mainly as an expert fencer and a fixture in Paris society; virtually nothing is known of his musical training prior to his meteoric rise as a violinist and conductor. In 1769, Parisians were surprised to see the famous fencer among the violinists in the Concert des Amateurs, then the most prominent orchestra giving public concerts in Paris. Two years later, he was the orchestra's concertmaster. A year after that, he made his debut as a soloist, performing his own first two violin concerti. By 1773, he had become music director. But his upward mobility in the music world stopped soon after that, as he struck the glass ceiling imposed by his race. In 1776, Saint-Georges was offered the position of director of the Paris Opera, the most prestigious musical institution in France -- but the offer was withdrawn after the singers objected to working under the direction of a mulatto. Nonetheless, Saint-Georges remained one of Europe's leading conductors for the rest of his life. He was the conductor who commissioned and premiered Haydn's six "Paris" symphonies in 1785. He even continued his busy concert schedule after resuming his military career in the service of the French Revolution, conducting weekly concerts without interruption while he led a cavalry regiment in the French Republic's war against Austria.

Perhaps a little ironically, Saint-Georges and Mozart were bitter enemies. When Mozart visited Paris in 1778, Saint-Georges declined to have the Concert des Amateurs perform Mozart's own "Paris" Symphony, leaving the premiere to the inferior Concert Spirituel. Mozart, in his opera The Magic Flute, expressly indicated that the villainous Monostatos was black, largely a jab at his rival Saint-Georges.

The other major legacy that Saint-Georges left to the music world was the modern violin bow that is used by all violinists and violists (except period performers) today. Saint-Georges did not invent it -- the modern bow is also referred to as the Tourte pattern after its inventor -- but he was arguably the violinist who did more than any other to popularize it. This week's piece, the eighth of Saint-Georges' fourteen violin concerti, was composed in 1775, when the composer was reaching the peak of his fame. Saint-Georges was both conductor and soloist at its first performance that year. More soloistic than the concerti of Haydn or Mozart, the concerto took full advantage of the extra agility and precision that the Tourte bow allowed.

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Andrew

July 2017

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