Early in 1779, (just ten years before the storming of the Bastille) Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, began performing music with Queen Marie-Antoniette at Versailles, at her request. In Vienna Marie-Antoniette had grown up with daily instruction in voice, harp and forte-piano and now as the first royal hostess at Versailles since Marie de Medici she supported and participated in performances of the finest classical music.
Joseph Bologne was born in the French colony of Guadeloupe to the plantation owner George Bologne de Saint-Georges and his African slave Nanon. They lived for some time on an estate on St. Domingue (now Haiti) before his family finally settled in Paris in around 1749. In the French capital Joseph’s talents for music and athletics were realized. At the age of 13 Saint-Georges became a pupil of La Boëssière, a master of arms, and also had riding lessons with Dugast at the Tuileries and would become one of the finest swordsmen in Europe.
Little is known of his musical education but it has been suggested that he studied the violin with Leclair and composition with Gossec. 1769 is the year of his first professional engagement, as a violinist in Gossec’s orchestra, the Concert des Amateurs. He made his public début as a soloist with the Concert des Amateurs in 1772, performing two of his own Violin Concerti Op 2. When Gossec became a director of the Concert Spirituel in 1773, Saint-Georges succeeded him as musical director and leader of the Amateurs which rapidly won recognition as one of the finest orchestras in France. (It was Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges who commissioned and premiered the six Paris Symphonies by Franz Joseph Haydn.)
The first performance of the symphony on our program today was given in Paris at the Hôtel de Soubise, by the Concert des Amateurs. The music is identical to the Overture to the opera L’Amant Anonyme first performed 8 March 1780.
L’Amant Anonyme (The Anonymous Lover) is the only one of six operas by Saint-Georges to survive in its entirety. Madame de Montesson, who was the secret wife of the Duke of Orleans and a patron of Saint-Georges, sponsored the premier of the opera at her private theater in 1780. It tells the story of Valcour, a man secretly in love with his friend Leontine, but because of social norms is unable to tell her of his affections. It is entirely possible that Saint-George found himself in a similar situation.