LE CHEVALIER DE SAINT-GEORGE
THIS strange and romantic personage, one who seems made
to tempt the pen of a Lenotre, was born at Basse-Terre
(Guadaloupe), December 25, 1745, the son of a comptroller-
general, M. de Boulogne, and a negress. He was given the
Christian name of Joseph Boulogne Saint-George. Is this the
origin of the surname "Saint-George" under which he became
famous? No historical document exists which might authenticate
the fact; but M. Roger de Beauvoir, who has written a lengthy
novel' with Saint-George for its hero, one filled with detail which
is not altogether inaccurate, furnishes a quite reasonable ex-
planation of the origin of the name. "This name, Saint-George,"
he writes, "was not given the young mulatto as a mere matter of
choice of name, as is so often the case in the colonies. The hand-
somest vessel in the harbor of Guadaloupe, at the time the child
was born, served him in the stead of a godfather."
Brought to France by his father when he was very young,
Saint-George soon gave proof of the extraordinary ease with
which he learned. Placed in lodgings with the famous fencing-
master La Boessiere, he rapidly became a redoubtable fencer,
and showed remarkable endowment for all forms of bodily ex-
ercise. The little mulatto's petulance, says Angelo, and his
extraordinary vivacity greatly entertained M. de Boulogne, who
said that instead of a man he had engendered a sparrow.2
Before long La Boissiere's pupil had acquired great superiority,
not alone in the handling of the foils, but as a marksman, skater,
equestrian and dancer as well. At the same time his rare natural
gifts for the arts, and notably for music, were carefully cultivated.
Saint-George took lessons from Jean-Marie Leclair, and his talent
for the violin soon made itself evident. In 1761 he was numbered
among the gendarmes of the royal guard; yet his leisure hours
made it possible for him to perfect, without interruption, his
'Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Roger de Beauvoir. Calmann-Levy, Paris,
1890. The book is well-written, and interesting despite the occasional obtrusion of the
melodramatic. It gives vivid pictures of life in the French Antilles and Paris during the
closing decades of the ancien regime.-Transl.
2Henry Angelo: Angelo's Pic-Nic, 1905, p. 10.
cultivation of the arts. And in 1786 Moline had inscribed, below
the portrait of Saint-George, the following lines which do homage
at one and the same time to the accomplished dancer and the
fervent disciple of Euterpe:
Enfant du Goft et du Genie,
I1 naquit au sacre Vallon,
Et fut de Terpsichore 6mule et nourrisson
Rival du Dieu de l'Harmonie,
S'il eAt a la musique uni la poesie,On l'aurait pris pour Apollon.1
(Offspring of taste and genius, he
Was one the sacred valley bore,
Of Terpsichore nursling and competitor;
Arrival of the god of harmony.
Had he to music added poesy,
Apollo's self he'd been mistaken for.)
We may recall the fact that Tartini, too, was something of a fencer;
his predilection for the rapier gives him a certain kinship with
Saint-George, who thus appears to be the second violinist who
cultivated the art of fence.
Established as a man of the world, Saint-George never moved
about without a following of admirers. In 1766, he pitted him-
self against the celebrated Italian fencer Faldoni (in September);
and at the same time that he was studying composition with
Gossec (who, in 1766, inscribed to him his Op. IX, Six trios for
two violins and bass), he led a gay, worldly life. His father
had left him an income of from 7,000 to 8,000 livres, but the
fashionable mulatto spent without count, and thrust himself
feverishly into the Parisian social whirlpool, awakening in women
a mixture of sympathetic curiosity and haughty reserve. To-
ward 1770, he devoted himself seriously to his musical studies
and, during the winter of 1772-1773, he played at the Concert
des amateurs two concertos for a principal violin with orchestra,
whose merit is vaunted by the Mercure, announcing them in
December, 1773. These concertos in course of time acquired a
decided vogue. Yet they were only our violinist's compositorial
first-fruits, since in June, 1773, the Mercure announced the issue
by the music publisher Sieber, of six string quartets by Saint-
This establishes the fact that Gossec and Saint-George were
the first French musicians who wrote string quartets. This
type of composition which was largely cultivated in Paris after the
1Mercure de France, Feb. 1768, p. 13.
beginning of 1765, numbered among its representatives: Toeschi
(1765), Cannabich (1766), Boccherini (1767), Talon and Misli-
wecek (1767), Haydn (1768), Leemans (1769), Gasman (1769),
Regel (1769), Aspelmayer (1769), Vanhall (1770), Gossec (1770),
Carlo Stamitz (1770), de Machi (1771), and J. Ch. Bach (1772).
Applauded as a virtuoso player and composer at the Con-
cert des Amateurs, given at the Hotel Soubise, Saint-George lost
no time in assuming the direction of the organization. In 1773,
Gossec, the conductor, together with Gavinies and Leduc, was
asked to preside over the destinies of the Concert spirituel. In
consequence he laid down the baton he had wielded at the Hotel
Soubise, and his pupil inherited his charge. Two years later, in
June, 1775, the publisher Bailleux brought out a whole series of
concertos for violin by Saint-George, the opuses II, III, IV, and V.
The gifted mulatto was then in the heydey of his creative activity,
and by the end of the year 1775 he had already written a collection
of Symphonies concertantes, one of which was played, on Christmas
Day, at the Concert Spirituel.
His standing as a musician was now so firmly established that
he was considered for the post of assistant director at the Opra.
Yet the candidacy of Saint-George met with a rather frigid re-
ception on the part of the feminine contingent at the Royal
Academy of Music. Grimm tells us how the singers and dancers,
Mlles. Arnould, Guimard and Rosalie at their head, presented
a petition to the queen in order to represent that their honor,
and the delicacy of their conscience, would never allow them to
take orders from a mulatto.' They forgot the engaging Don
Juan, and saw him only as a man of color.
The latter, nevertheless, if we are to credit Bachaumont,
found few cruel ones among the fair. Most women, attracted
by his many and marvelous gifts, sought him out, despite the
homeliness of his features. "He loved" says the Notice which
precedes La Boissiere's work, "and knew to make himself be-
loved." He was susceptible, a sentimentalist. On February
25, 1777, at the rehearsal of a symphony by the deceased Leduc,
which was to be played the day following at the Concert des Ama-
teurs, Saint-George, in the middle of the adagio, "moved by the
expressive quality of the composition, and remembering that his
friend was no more, dropped his bow and burst into tears; his
emotion communicated itself to all the artists, and the rehearsal
had to be adjourned."2
1Memoires of Bachaumont-Vol. XIV. May 1, 1779.
2Journal de Paris, March 17, 1777.
He was drawn to the theatre: in the month of July, 1777, he
presented a comedy in three acts interspersed with ariettes and
entitled Ernestine, at the Comedie italienne. Its wretched libretto
was responsible for its failure, although the music was considered
excellent. The Mercure admitted that the composer showed good
qualities of style, and much knowledge, as well as "facility and
talent." The score of Ernestine has not been preserved; only a
few fragments of its music are extant in a collection of Saint-
George's melodies, in the possession of the library of the Paris
Conservatory. An air like that of Ernestine, the heroine, "Cl'-
mengis, lis dans mon amne," has an absolutely Gluckian aroma.
Later, after having performed a second series of quartets, in 1778,
he presented a new comedy with ariettes at the Comedie italienne,
La Chasse (The Hunt), which drew good-sized audiences. Bachau-
mont mentions the vaudeville air with which the piece concludes
and prophesies that it will soon become popular.
Favored by Mme. de Montesson, wife of the Duke of Orleans,
Saint-George was attached to the latter's theatre and soon took
charge of the concerts in which Mme. de Montesson played the
parts of Mile. Arnould and of Mlle. Laruette. Mme. de Montes-
son even had an office assigned him in the ducal hunting establish-
ment: Angelo says that our musician was given the title of "Lieu-
tenant of the Hunt of Pinci." Thus introduced in the artistic,
social and political centres of the Palais-Royal, Saint-George be-
came one of the intimates of the Duke of Orleans. Yet, not con-
tent to shine on the boards of his patroness's theatre, he also acted
in comedy on the ultra-elegant stage which the Marquise de la
Montalembert had installed in her home in the rue de la Roquette,
faubourg Saint Antoine.l
The violinist fencer thus ran the gamut of the talents as a
victor. In spite of the fact that the career of his preceding
comedies a ariettes had been that of the shortest, Saint-George had
been encouraged by the success scored by his melodies and
romances. He continued to write for the stage, and in March,
17C0, his l'Amant anonyme (The anonymous Lover), the complete
manuscript score of which is in the library of the Paris Con-
servatory, was presented. In the second act we discover one of
those dialogue duets which delighted the music-lover of that
On the death of the Duke of Orleans, in 1785, Saint-George
lost his charge of "Lieutenant of the Hunt of Pinci," a loss
1H. Vial et G. Capon: Le Journal d'un Bourgeois de Popincourt, avocat au Parle-
ment, 1903, p. 34.
which affected his purse to such a degree that he was obliged to
develop new resources by the practice of his favorite art of the
He went to London, where he engaged in a series of fencing
bouts with the most famous English and foreign fencing-masters.
It was there that on April 9, 1787, he crossed steel in a sensational
match with that celebrated adventuress, the Chevaliere d'Eon,
in the presence of the Prince of Wales. In the course of the
summer he returned to Paris, and once more devoted himself to
composition. On August 18, 1787, inspired, it may be, by his
bout with the modern Pallas, he presented at the Comedie italienne,
a two-act piece, prose and ariettes, which he called La Fille gargon
(The Girl Boy). On this occasion Grimm again adverted to the
celebrated mulatto and the "highly distinguished manner" in
which he played the violin. The music of La Fille garcon was
received with great applause, if we may credit the Journal de
Paris.1 According to Gerber, Saint-George also had performed,
in 1788, at the Theatre des Beaujolais, that is to say the Palais-
Royal, another comedy entitled Le Marchand de marrons.
Some time later our musician was obliged to return to London,
toward the end of the year 1789, when he accompanied into exile
the new Duke of Orleans, the future Philippe-l'egalite; and where,
on different occasions, he had the opportunity of proving himself
an incomparable virtuoso of the foils. It has been said that the
Duke of Orleans made use of him in the conduct of his political
intrigues, an assertion which does not seem to lack correctness, if
it be examined in the light of the adventure of which he was the
hero at Tournai, in June, 1791, when he arrived in the said city to
give a concert there. The commandant advised him not to show
himself in public, owing to the antipathy with which the French
refugees regarded his liberal sentiments.2 Was Saint-George using
music to cloak a so-called mission? We do not know. But the
fact remains that the account given of his escapade at Tournoi by
his comrade Louise Fusil, contains no hint of any political role
played by the mulatto at the request of the Duke of Orleans. She
writes that she had entered into an engagement with Saint-
George and his faithful friend, the horn-player Lamothe, to give
concerts at Lille, in 1791, and that when these concerts had con-
cluded, the mulatto had pushed forward as far as Tournai, where
the emigrate nobles had looked on him with disfavor.3
1Journal de Paris, Aug. 19, 1787.
2Moniteur universel,No. 172, p. 708.
3Souvenirs d'une actrice, Vol. 1, pp. 144, 145.
On the other hand, the documentary evidence of the archives
informs us that Saint-George was living in Lille in 1791, and that
for two years he was a captain in the National Guard. Thus in
the violinist-National Guard captain, the love for music was allied
to solid patriotic sentiments.
These sentiments he was soon to affirm in a manner still more
striking. Toward the end of 1792 he raised a body of light troops
under the name of "Saint-George's Legion," recruited among
men of color. This legion was already organized by September
15, 1792; the mulatto at its head with the rank of "Chief of Bri-
gade."1 It was also known as "The American Hussars," and in
1793 became the 13th regiment of Chasseurs (Riflemen).
After various peripaties "Saint-George's Legion" arrived at
Lille on February 23, 1793, which it left to march into Belgium,
taking a brilliant part in the operations then in progress there.
But its Colonel was to experience that mania of suspicion which
was a feature of the times. On May 2d, 1793, the Commissioner
Dufrenne wrote: "Saint-George is a man who will bear watch-
ing." He was accused of having diverted a large amount of funds
destined for the use of his regiment to the payment of his personal
debts; of maintaining 30 horses in his stables; and of ostentating
an insolent luxury.2
Despite these accusations he retained command of his corps
for some time;s then the political agitation began anew, and on
September 25, 1793, the Executive Committee dismissed him.
In vain Saint-George objects, in vain he places in evidence the
proofs of his civic virtues, "those republican sentiments innate
in him." In vain he demands a hearing in order to be able to
submit his justification. He is arrested and imprisoned; first at
Houdainville, then at Clermont-sur-Oise, where he was kept for
over a year. His successor Target having written him that his
greatest desire was to remit to Saint-George the command from
which he had been so unjustly deposed, the latter again took up
his pen and addressed a new petition to the Committee of Public
Safety. He called attention to the fact that he had been one of
the first to make known the treason of Dumouriez; and he adjoined
justificatory documents which testified to his perfect civicism.
1Archives historiques du Ministre de la Guerre. P. Descaves: Historique du 13
Regt. de Chasseurs.
2Archives historiques, do.
3That his skill as a fencer was still generally acknowledged at this time is proved
by a reference of de Marbot's anent Augereau, at that time colonel d'etat-major, as "a
great duellist, very brave, and who had made Saint-Georges, the strongest blade in
France, knuckle under." Mem. du General Bon de Marbot, I, p. 19.-Trans.
The mayor and municipal officials of Lille state positively that the
corps commanded by Saint-George numbered only good patriots
in its ranks; they regret that the Republic should have thought
it needful to deprive herself of the services of so fine a citizen;
and the ex-colonel's comrades pay the liveliest tributes to his
bravery and his qualities as a commander.
Saint-George's removal was assuredly nothing less than an
arbitrary measure, as unjust as it was unjustified. Hence the
Committee of Public Safety, obliged to yield to the evidence,
reinstated him in command of "The American Hussars," on the
24th of Floreal, the year III.1 But the unfortunate Saint-George
was not yet at the end of his troubles. During his absence the 13th
Chasseurs had been twice reorganized. Commanded in the
beginning by Target, he was succeeded by a certain Bouquet,
Target being carried on the roster as a supernumerary. Hence
the restoration of Saint-George gave the regiment a third colonel!
The supernumerary colonel Target was eliminated; but the
rivalry between Bouquet and Saint-George persisted. Each of
the two chiefs in command gave his own orders, with the result
that absolute anarchy ensued. The regiment was divided into
two clans, Bouquetistes and Saint-Georgistes. Finally, politics
entered in, and in short, Saint-George was dismissed from his
command a second time, on the 8th of Brumaire of the year IV.
In spite of all his efforts he did not succeed in inducing the Com-
mittee of Public Safety to reconsider its decision. In vain, on the
7th of Floreal, of the year V, did he write to Rewbell, that he had
"constantly shown his great attachment to the Revolution;" in
vain he again demanded that justice be done him. This time his
military career had come to a definite end.
He then resumed his errant mode of life and, according to
Louise Fusil, went to Santo Domingo with his faithful Lamothe,
narrowly escaping being hung there in the course of a revolt.
Returning to Paris, he lived in a state bordering on indigence
until an ulcer of the bladder carried him off on the 12th of June,
Thus disappeared one of the most curious and engaging
figures of the dying eighteenth century. Saint-George was a
remarkably gifted man, full of generosity and delicacy of feeling.
Liberal and beneficent, he often deprived himself of the necessities
of life in order to aid the unfortunate. His contemporaries use
the expression "full and soft" to express his violinistic gifts, and,
in truth, it really seems to qualify his manner, in which the dual
trends of his temperament are united, in a mingling of vivacity,
brilliancy and dreamy melancholy. Since November 28, 1912, a
street in Basse Terre bears his name.
lArchives historiques, 24 floreal, au III.
This story is in the common domain and the rest may be found at
It's a great read I definitely recommend it.
If you have difficulty leave me a comment and I can send you a copy.