Although his biography reads like a popular novel, Saint-Georges was an important musical figure in late eighteenth century Paris. The founder of the Concert de la Loge Olympique, he commissioned Haydn's Paris Symphonies, and was a composer of instrumental music and opera. Perhaps more famous for his swordsmanship than his music (he was acclaimed the finest swordsman in Europe), he was also a political prisoner and an influential member of Parisian society.
Joseph Saint-Georges was born on 25 December 1745, the son of a Guadeloupe planter, George Bologne, and his African slave. When Bologne was unjustly accused of murder, he fled to France with his family but was able to return after being granted a royal pardon. In 1753, though, Bologne took Joseph to France permanently.
The young Saint-Georges trained as a fencer and upon graduating was made a Gendarme de la Garde du Roi and dubbed chevalier. Bologne later returned to Guadeloupe but left his son, whose romantic conquests were already legendary, a handsome annuity. This lasted until Bologne's death in 1774, from which time Saint-Georges was reliant on his musical activities for money.
Little is known of Saint-Georges' musical training, though it is thought he may have studied composition with Gossec and the violin with Lolli. In 1769, he became a member of Gossec's orchestra, the Concert des Amateurs, and soon became its leader. In 1772, he performed his first two violin concertos with the orchestra: their virtuosity reveals him to be an excellent player.
In 1773 he became musical director of the Amateurs and proceeded to publish most of his instrumental music, including some of Paris's first string quartets. In 1776 he was prevented from becoming music director of the Paris Opéra by the racism of some of its leading female singers. Abandoning instrumental composition to devote himself to opera, Saint-Georges became music director of Mme de Montesson's private theatre where he gave the premiere of his third opera, L'amant anonyme, in 1780.
In 1781 the Amateurs were disbanded and Saint-Georges founded the Concert de la Loge Olympique, an orchestra whose fame spread as far as its predecessor. In 1787, he travelled to London to give exhibition fencing matches in front of the Prince of Wales and upon returning to Paris, composed his most successful opera, La fille-garçon.
When the revolution rocked the Parisian world, Saint-Georges joined the National Guard and became a colonel, helping to put down a counter-revolutionary plot in Lille. In 1793, however, he spent 18 months in a military prison, a victim of Robespierre's Reign of Terror. During his last years, he continued to direct orchestras and maintain a military career. He died on 9 June 1799.
Perhaps more important for his conducting and work as an impresario than for his compositions, Saint-Georges' colourful life reveals a character of many talents. Of his instrumental works, the opus 2 violin concertos display far more than mere virtuosity, and the symphonies concertantes are particularly impressive.