Symphony No. 1 in G Major, op. 11

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          It is difficult indeed, to know just where to begin with the amazing life of Saint- George (a.k.a. Joseph Bologne). If any life were said to be colorful and improbable it would be his.  He was variously the first successful black classical composer; the champion swordsman of all Europe; colonel of his own regiment, which fought in the Revolution; virtuoso violin soloist; survivor of a slave revolt in the Caribbean; confidant and companion to Marie Antoinette; conductor of famed orchestras; patron to Josef Haydn—and much more!  While in many ways constrained by racial attitudes and traditions of Royal France, he nevertheless successfully negotiated his way through the complex social labyrinths of the time as a respected and esteemed member of the lower nobility and intellectual and artistic circles of France.

          Bologne was born on Christmas Day on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in 1745, the son of a wealthy planter, George Bologne, and Nanon, a Black slave, servant of George’s wife.  Acting unilaterally, his father had assumed the noble-sounding honorific,  “de Saint-George,” after the name of one of his plantations—but only later was it formalized.  And in a startling contrast to the times, Bologne embraced Joseph as his son, and took him—with his birth mother--off to France, where the youngster enjoyed a remarkable education.   It began with training with one of France’s best fencing masters.  He excelled famously—in that, as well as in his well-documented romantic affairs.  By the age of twenty-one he was considered the best swordsman in all of France.  No mean accomplishment.

          But, concurrently, he must have engaged in serious music study, for he joined the orchestra of the important composer, François-Joseph Gossec in 1769, and he probably studied composition with the luminary, as well.  By the age of twenty-seven, he was busy as a virtuoso violin soloist, performing his own rather difficult concertos.  Add to that his burgeoning career as a conductor, and you must admit the young man was off to an impressive life.  His many compositions, besides a dozen violin concertos, include string quartets (among the first in France) and ten symphonies concertantes.  In addition, there are many works for the stage, including operas.  He had been proposed as head of the Paris Opéra, but racial politics torpedoed that august appointment.   Nevertheless, he rose to noteworthy positions in the intricate artistic and social world of pre-Revolutionary France.  He went on to found the famous Concert de la Loge Olympique orchestra, and in this rôle he commissioned Haydn to compose his famous “Paris” Symphonies (c.1785).  By the time of the onset of the French Revolution he had continued his remarkable career as premier swordsman, had gotten involved in the dangerous politics of the Revolution, and was named the colonel of his own regiment in the National Guard. 

          Notwithstanding his service to the Revolution, like so many of that parlous time, he ended up imprisoned in the Reign of Terror, but escaped the guillotine, and resumed his command after the death of Robespierre.  After the Revolution he went back to the Caribbean, disappeared into the tumult of a slave revolt, and for two years given up for dead.  But, he resurfaced, traveled back to Paris, and resumed his acclaimed career as a conductor until his illness and death in 1799--an astounding life by any measure.

          The two opus 11 symphonies were most likely composed in the middle 1770s, when the composer around thirty years old.  They are almost perfect textbook examples of the “correct” model for the early symphony.   Haydn had been busy for some time—along with others--establishing the norms for instrumental music in the early classic period. Baroque musical style, with its innate spinning out of long phrases, emphasis upon counterpoint, and rich harmonies had yielded to the simpler “style galant,”—an interim style with rather limited possibilities.  And now, most everyone was looking to the more simple textures, harmonies, and balanced, square phrasing that characterized the steps to the classic style of mature Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven.

          Bologne’s Symphony in G Major reflects a solid education in music composition, and while displaying all of the simplicities of most early symphonies, concomitantly does not evince any traits of a “student” work.  It is a finely crafted example of what symphonies of the time were—or perhaps a decade earlier.  Accordingly, it consists of only three movements—the obligatory minuet lay in the future—and is scored for the conventional two oboes, two horns, and strings.  The first movement is an easy-to-follow sonata form, beginning with   a spritely first theme, with punchy dynamic accents and pizzicato strings.  The second theme is a bit more lyrical, leading to zippy closing material—all within the conventions of the time.  The brief development has some diverting, forays into various minor keys before the recapitulation.

          The second movement is an elegant ballroom dance in two sections.  Dance movements were conventional in all countries and styles during the eighteenth century, but this one just exudes the perfumed atmosphere of the stylized culture of the court of France.  It rather reminds one of a minuet, but only in duple, not triple time.  The last movement is a scamper, in simple binary form, the tempo of which would certainly preclude any dignified dancers from participating.  There’s a bit of frisson between first and second violins, adding interest along the way, and exuberant horns drive it all to the end.

          Profound this work is not—but then, much good music from skilled composers in those times was not.  But, it is a fine-crafted work by a composer of striking, unlikely credentials.  It reminds us that the history of music is, as are all human endeavors, usually much more nuanced and complex than later times perceive.      


--Wm. E. Runyan

©2021 William E. Runyan