On the Anonymous Lover/ L’Amant Anonyme

With the name comes a distincter recognition
and knowledge of the thing.
—H. D. Thoreau


Brown, Mather (1761⁠–1831). Monsieur de St. George. April 4, 1788. Print by William Ward, (1766-1826). Mezzotint on laid paper, plate: 14 7/8 x 10 7/8 in. (37.8 x 27.6 cm) sheet; 16 ½ x 12 5/16 in. (41.9 x 31.2 cm). Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953 (53.600.4837). Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.

 With the vanishing of the name goes the disappearance of the object, the slice of art, the fragment of literature, the portion of music. With the fading of the thing, so the name is gradually effaced from memory, and whatever there was becomes anonymous.

I have long taken a special interest in music by composers whose names and works have been virtually eliminated from history. LA Opera audiences know this well; the Recovered Voices series introduced them to a part of the extraordinary literature of works by composers whose music was banned and whose lives were disrupted—or worse—by the Third Reich.

Our presentation of The Anonymous Lover, by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is a logical extension of that mission.[1] The composer was born on a plantation on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. His father was a French slave owner, and his mother an enslaved Senegalese woman known as Nanon. He has been virtually ignored over more than two centuries.

Since his death in 1799, his name, as the title of his opera, has been as good as anonymous. There is not even universal agreement as to its correct spelling, authentic form or exact origins. His first name is agreed upon: Joseph. His family name—spelled variously Bologne, Boulogne and even Boullongne—has sustained much confusion. Is the addition of Chevalier de Saint-Georges (or Saint-George) a title, or is that his name? His father, a member of the minor aristocracy, seems to have borne a title which could not be passed on to the composer. French law denied illegitimate children as well as Black persons from inheriting the rank of nobility. As time went on, he seems to have been referred to more often as Saint-Georges, and often signed his name that way. For purposes of simplicity, I will refer to him as such.

He was very well known in his time and then, after his death, gradually forgotten. This was partially due to a change in musical tastes, largely affected by the aftermath of the French Revolution. But unquestionably racial prejudice played an important role in the long-term fate of his works.

One contemporary critic (may he remain anonymous) serves as an onerous example of that bigotry: “It’s as if nature served the mulatto in a particular fashion, lending them a marvelous aptitude to exercise all arts of imitation, while at the same time having seemingly refused them that certain élan of sentiment and of genius which, alone, creates new ideas and original conceptions.”

“All arts of imitation”!!! This last assertion anticipates and resembles Wagner’s remarks concerning the alleged innate inferiority of Jewish artists: “since Jewish art is superfluous, it can express nothing but the trivial and indifferent. Jews . . . cannot learn how to create art, only how to mimic it” (Jewishness in Music [Das Judenthum in der Musik]).

Saint-Georges was celebrated in his time as a Renaissance man. He first became famous as a prodigious fencing champion (already as a teenager) and later, a master. He was an overall sportsman. He was a military officer (commander of the Black Legion also known as St. George Legion). Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, father and grandfather of the two renowned nineteenth-century authors, served directly under him. He was a virtuoso violinist (pushing the boundaries of the instrument at the time), the music director and conductor of a leading Parisian symphony orchestra, and a composer. He was well respected, apparently well liked and, in his 53 years, globally successful. His published output includes 14 violin concerti, eight sinfonie concertante, a clarinet and a bassoon concerto, two symphonies, six string quartets, twelve other quartets concertans (his term) and various songs and chamber music. Some of this is lost.

As for his six operas, only The Anonymous Lover and one aria from his first opera, Ernestine, have survived.

Of course, he was the target of cabals and intrigue too, as evidenced when he was appointed music director of the Opéra until an official complaint delivered to Queen Marie Antoinette prevented it. At one point after the Revolution, he was imprisoned for 18 months, seemingly as political retribution, held on (apparently unfounded) accusations of corruption.

In all of this, his life resembles in many respects that of one of his great contemporaries: Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Both men’s varied careers bestrode the ancien régime and post-Revolutionary France. They both were considered subversive to some, but too cozy with the aristocracy to others. Beaumarchais was a great supporter of the American Revolution, and certain of his writings, The Marriage of Figaro in particular, have been seen as contributing to the spirit of the French Revolution. Saint-Georges was sympathetic to the same aspirations of revolution in France, as well as for his compatriots suffering as slaves in the Caribbean islands of his birth. To differing degrees, they both had to rehabilitate their images after years of royal patronage, which included Kings Louis XV and XVI and, most importantly, Queen Marie Antoinette.

Much of his life is not well documented, but we know that he had direct contact with Mozart, and there is a most intriguing episode with the man whose name his own was to become associated. Saint-Georges has been referred to as the “Black Mozart.” This practice has persisted to this day and should be terminated decisively and definitively. It is not only racist in origin, but historically inaccurate. Saint-Georges was born eleven years before Mozart and, if anything, is more likely to have influenced the younger composer than the reverse. Although Mozart is in a class by himself, in terms of their prodigious talents, their own natural grace and elegance, and that of their music, the comparison is more apt. (In some circles in France he is referred to as the “French Pushkin.”)

They met when the younger Mozart came to Paris in 1778 for the third time. It is a matter of record that they both lived and dined under the same roof from July 5 (two days after Mozart’s mother Anna Maria died) until September 11. They were lodged together in the home of the Baron Friedrich Melchior Grimm, a critic and Bavarian friend of Leopold Mozart and a fellow Freemason. Grimm took in the 22-year-old Wolfgang, who was severely shaken by the sudden death of his mother.

One can only conjecture about the exchanges between the two composers. Mozart, having traveled since childhood, can be considered multi-cultural. Part of the universality of his genius was his ability to absorb almost instantly everything with which he came into contact. Saint-Georges was a product of the musical styles and practices in France, part of a new wave. For instance, he was one of the first exponents of the sinfonia concertante, a form popular in Paris. Perhaps Mozart owes some of his interest in it to Saint-Georges. Chronologically, this form serves as a bridge between the Baroque concerto grosso and the Classical solo concerto by employing several solo instruments. Though Mozart was already experimenting with this several months before his mother’s death, it is hard to imagine that he would not have discussed it with Saint-Georges. And then again, we do not know for sure that the two composers had not met earlier. Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, with its monumentally tragic slow movement (which I imagine as an elegy to his mother), is the culmination of this genre.

Saint-Georges, a Freemason himself, negotiated at the behest of a wealthy patron with another man who shared that association, Josef Haydn. He organized the commission with the Austrian composer for six symphonies which later became renowned as the “Paris Symphonies.” Saint-Georges prepared the first edition and conducted the premieres with the Orchestre de la Loge Olympique, of which he was music director.

The Anonymous Lover, described as a “comédie mêlée d’ariettes et de ballets,” was based on a play by Félicité de Genlis, one of the many fascinating personalities in the cast of characters of Saint-Georges’s life. They were contemporaries and met as teenagers. It is an opéra comique with dialogues and many dances, which of course was de rigueur.

This comic opera is a rather lighthearted affair, consistent with the tastes of the times, concerning a love triangle, but one with a twist. The threesome consists of nobles: Léontine (soprano), a beautiful young widow; Valcour (tenor), her friend of many years; and the Anonymous Lover, a suitor who has been courting her anonymously for four years. There is the conventional entourage consisting of Ophémon (baritone), an old scholar, who accom­panies and helps direct the intrigue, and Dorothée (originally a speaking role), Léontine’s confidante and friend. There is the requisite happy and simple peasant couple, Jeanette (soprano) and Colin (tenor). The double wedding at the end of the opera will include both social classes.

Soprano Tiffany Townsend (left) as Léontine and tenor Robert Stahley (right) as Valcour, with dancers Andrea Beasom and Daniel Lindgren, in a scene from The Anonymous Lover. Photo Credit: Larry Ho.

The plot consists of nothing more than the Anonymous Lover finding his courage (with a little indirect encouragement from Léontine) to declare his identity; it is Valcour himself. Joy, happi­ness and general rejoicing. There is nothing of profundity or food for thought in the libretto that would occasion special attention.

But the music is another story. It is elegant, charming, lively and, most important, deeply expressive and even profound when it needs to be. For this production, we have imported the aforementioned aria from Ernestine and assigned it to Dorothée. This liberty allows an extraordinary grand aria, written in the vein of Gluck (and, to my ears, impressively harkening forward to Berlioz), to have a hearing. The role of Léontine is of an extreme difficulty. It requires the range and agility of Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte (there are three major arias) and a challenge worthy of Constanze’s second-act marathon in Die Entführung aus dem Serail: five consecutive numbers with only a minimum break.

Saint-Georges’s biography has been complicated by an abundance of second- (and even third-) hand impressions, a romanticized novel from the nineteenth century, and even in recent years a French movie. Some commentators have been moved to see The Anonymous Lover in semi-autobiographical terms, imagining the composer as the male protagonist. There are no letters nor any evidence of Saint-Georges’s private life, but it is assumed that he had a very active—and more than likely discreet—romantic life. It is also no leap to conclude that, given his great success in the highest reaches of society before the Revolution, that he must have had many women admirers.

So, on the basis of what is known, he was, as a lover, anony­mous. But it is not a matter of conjecture that, whatever attachments he had or yearned for, all doors were closed to him for marriage. The social conventions, and even the laws, rendered that impossible for a man of color. Consequently, his life has a tragic dimension that we can only imagine. I sense that in his predilection for minor keys: five numbers out of 18 in this opera (six if we count the imported Ernestine aria), plus several middle sections starting with the overture. This is a high percentage for a supposedly light comedy. I leave this to the imagination of those who are devotees of seeing particular works in biographical terms, only noting that composers of the period rarely regarded their compositions as confessional or as occasions to tell their own stories. And yet, music speaks what words often do not say . . .

This is yet again an occasion to reflect on why, in the classical music world, we allow valuable voices to be forgotten, as we simi­larly have done with many of the victims of the Nazi regime. It is not enough to accept anonymity for them. Denied recognition is one issue, the loss of part of our ancestors’ heritage and patrimony to our collectively received culture is another. We should be allowed to hear their music and judge for ourselves as to how we feel about it. As Thoreau observed, through their names will come recognition and knowledge.

I am struck by how much wonderful music there is in this 90-minute opera. It makes one wonder what might have come out under different circumstances, for instance if Saint-Georges had a Da Ponte with whom to collaborate, or had he actually become director of the Opéra. A work needn’t be a second Rosetta Stone, one of the lost Bach Passions or the musical equivalent of the Mona Lisa to deserve being performed. Almost two hundred fifty years of anonymity is not what this music deserved.

Say his name: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
[1] NOTE: From November 14 to 29, 2020, LA Opera streamed the online production of The Anonymous Lover (L’Amant Anonyme), an unjustly neglected 1780 opera by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a Black composer who was a contemporary of Mozart. Directed by Bruce A. Lemon, Jr., in a socially distanced stage setting that blended both modern film and traditional opera staging, the performance reached a wide audience, with the cast and musicians performing at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall. Bologne’s beautiful score, characteristic of the period, was conducted by Music Director James Conlon, leading the LA Opera Orchestra in a separately recorded session. The streamed performance emanating from LA Opera was a West Coast premiere and the second complete known performance in the United States. This essay first appeared as the program note for the online production.