Chevalier de Saint-Georges: the remarkable revolutionary

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Too long overlooked, the extraordinary life of 18th-century violinist and composer the Chevalier de Saint-Georges has once more been celebrated over the past 25 years. Yet his compositions remain unfairly neglected, writes Kevin MacDonald

Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–99), was one of the most incredible musical personages of the late 18th century, yet he languished in relative obscurity for two centuries. Violin virtuoso, composer, champion fencer and French revolutionary officer, he began life on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe as the son of a wealthy French plantation owner and his enslaved African mistress. His life story is told in novels, a Canadian docudrama, an upcoming Hollywood lm and a number of recent, qualitatively uneven, biographies. Despite a growing catalogue of recordings of his compositions – there was a particular boom between 1996 and 2005 – his works remain all too rarely performed. Here I will consider his re-emergence in the musical literature, some of the best- documented aspects of his life, and his role in the development of the violin repertoire in the last decades of the 18th century…

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