Update browser for a secure Minnesota Orchestra experience

It looks like you may be using a web browser version that we don't support. Make sure you're using the most recent version of your browser, or try using of these supported browsers, to get the full Minnesota Orchestra experience: Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Edge.

Inside the Music

A Most Remarkable Life

A graphic image featuring Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges; MinnOrch violinist Natsuki Kumkagai
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges; MinnOrch violinist Natsuki Kumkagai

This month, MinnOrch violinist Natsuki Kumagai makes her solo concerto debut in a violin concerto written by a composer that, until very recently, has languished in historical obscurity despite leading one of the most remarkable lives of any 18th century musician in Europe.

That composer was Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He achieved great success not only as a virtuoso violinist, composer and conductor, but also as a champion fencer, and his status in these spheres garnered him considerable societal popularity (including a friendship with Marie Antoinette) in Paris and abroad. In 2022, Saint-Georges’ epic life and legacy was brought to wider audiences through the release of a heavily dramatized biopic named Chevalier starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the title role—but your chance to get to know the composer and his music right here at Orchestra hall has arrived

A headshot of MinnOrch violinist Natsuki Kumagai.
Natsuki Kumagai, violin; Natsuki makes her solo debut with the Minnesota Orchestra July 19 and 20.

From Guadeloupe to Paris

Saint-Georges was born Joseph Bologne on Christmas Day, 1745, to Georges Saint-Georges, a wealthy French plantation owner and Nanon, a 16-year-old from Senegal who was enslaved in the service of Georges’ wife. Joseph spent the first few years of his life in his birthplace, on the Carribean island of Baillif, Basse-Terre, in the Guadeloupe archipelago. At the age of seven, Georges moved Joseph to Paris in order to receive an aristocratic education. At 13, Saint-Georges was enrolled at the Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de 'l'équitation. His superlative athletic ability quickly allowed him to become one of the academy’s top students, and later one of France’s best swordsmen, winning high profile duels against Europe’s finest. Upon his graduation, he was named a member of the Gendarmes de la Garde du Roi, or the King’s guard, which earned him the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

In contrast to Saint-Georges’ well-documented rise to fame as an outstanding fencer, little is known about the musical training he received.

But the caliber at which Saint-Georges wrote and performed his works makes it impossible not to assume that he would have started his violin studies while he was still a young child.”

A Performer, a Revolutionary

Jean-Marie Leclair and Antonio Lolli, violinists who both wrote works dedicated to Saint-Georges, are rumored to have been his violin teachers. François Gossec, a life-long friend and mentor, is thought to have given lessons to the young composer. Saint-Georges stunned the Parisian public in 1769 in his debut as the concertmaster of Gossec’s Concert des Amateurs. In 1772, he premiered his first two concertos with the same ensemble to glowing praise.

A year later, Gossec left the Concert des Amateurs in Saint-Georges’ capable hands. For eight years, he led that ensemble with the same disciplined approach that catapulted him to stardom in the ring, turning the orchestra into one of the best in Europe. He repeated that success with the Concert de la Loge Olympique, formed after the Concert des Amateurs folded. It was with this orchestra that he premiered Haydn’s six Paris Symphonies in 1785.

The remainder of Saint-Georges’ life was swept up amid the French Revolution. Though he originally commanded a battalion of all-Black soldiers during the war, his association with nobility landed him a place in prison for over a year. Upon his release, he failed to reenter musical life to the level of his previous success, as post-Revolution society had completely transformed the landscape in which he flourished. He died in 1799.

Violinist Augustin Hadelich performs Saint-Georges with JoAnn Falletta and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

A sunny concerto

The violin concerto on the July 19 and 20 concerts was written in the mid-1770s and published by Antoine Bailleux sometime around 1775. Saint-Georges would have also given the premiere around this time while he was leader of the Concert des Amateurs. Structurally it follows the traditional fast-slow-fast order of movements for a concerto of this era.

Allegro Moderato. The first movement is bright and sunny, with the lengthy orchestral opening cycling through many themes. This music is gracefully proportioned and designed to charm. Eventually, the soloist enters on a long, sustained note before quickly toppling into nimble passagework, requiring a high level of skill to pull off effortlessly. The movement continues with the soloist alternating flashy, fast passages (a French foreshadowing of Niccolò Paganini) with more melodic ideas, always thoughtfully in dialogue with the orchestra. If one listens carefully, it may even be possible to hear how the violin dances about the orchestra with a lightness that evokes the footwork of a master swordsman.

Largo. The middle movement is gentle, songful, glowing and brilliant. There is an ephemeral glimpse of minor key melancholy that only briefly darkens the gentle sonic horizon, before the soloist offers a plaintive cadenza.

Rondeau. An ebullient theme is presented many times and interspersed with several contrasting episodes that display even more Saint-Georges’ immense command of the violin’s technical and expressive qualities. The concerto ends with another brief cadenza and one last presentation of the opening idea.

Instrumentation: Solo violin and string orchestra

Program note by Michael Divino.

Join us July 19-20 to experience this charming concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra!

Get tickets