Meet Marlon Daniel, The Conductor Who Premiered Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ Only Opera 236 Years After It Was Written

Conductor Marlon Daniel is the foremost interpreter of the music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He joins me to discuss premiering The Anonymous Lover, documenting Saint-Georges' works, the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges and more.

Meet Marlon Daniel, The Conductor Who Premiered Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ Only Opera 236 Years After It Was Written

Conductor Marlon Daniel is the foremost interpreter of the music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He joins me to discuss premiering The Anonymous Lover, documenting Saint-Georges' works, the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges and more.

This piece was originally published in Classical Post.

Conductor Marlon Daniel is the foremost interpreter of the music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He joins me to discuss premiering The Anonymous Lover, documenting Saint-Georges' works, the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges and more.


Anna Heflin: Who was Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges?

Marlon Daniel: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges or simply Saint-Georges (1745-1799), was a great historical figure born on the island of Guadeloupe in the French Caribbean. He was the illegitimate son of a wealthy white plantation owner George Bologne and a enslaved Guadeloupe woman of African descent, Nanon. He was Europe's greatest fencer and an exceptional military leader at the time of the French Revolution, but his true love was music.

Chevalier de Saint-Georges holds a significant place in music history as the first known composer of African descent in western classical music. During his lifetime he was recognized as a virtuoso violinist, conductor and composer. His operas, concertos, quartets, symphonies and sinfonia concertantes influenced the great composers of his day, including Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His life inspired iconic authors such as Alexandre Dumas in subsequent years.

We know that Saint-Georges was one of the most popular musicians of his day. Many composers created violin works with Saint-Georges as their soloist. He also commissioned and directed works that included Franz Joseph Haydn's "Paris" symphonies. Unfortunately, his music has regressed to relative obscurity but today many are interested in seeing a resurgence in his life and music.

Outside of his music, Bologne was a true savant, a jack of all trades and master of them too. His exploits in swimming, horseback riding, dancing, shooting, boxing and especially fencing are well-documented. He was the Superman of his time. US President John Adams’ declared that “Saint-Georges was the most accomplished man in Europe,” whose influence on music, arts and culture was remarkable.

AH: What sparked your interest in the music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges? How has performing, advocating for and researching his music influenced your career at large?

MD: Growing up, I did not necessarily see myself in the future as an expert or advocate on Saint-Georges or Black composers. This all came from a need to identify with composers and performers that looked like me. For much of my life in classical music I felt that I did not belong because of the color of my skin. I grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and began my musical career at a young age -- but for most of my childhood and teenage years, I rarely heard of any Black composers, and very few performers in classical music. The dichotomy was particularly noticeable on both sides of the racial equation: with White people asking me, “Do you play Jazz?” and Black people questioning, “Why are you playing that white folks’ music?” But classical music always resonated with me, and I did not think that it was exclusive to one race.

At the end of my studies in New York at Manhattan School of Music, I discovered Saint-Georges and began to learn of the rich history of composers and performers of color. There was barely any information in music history books at the time about these composers, but this made me even more determined to find out more.

I could not believe that there was a Black man who influenced Mozart. I thought this was pure fiction! So, I became obsessed with learning more about Saint-Georges, a real-life superman who was dark-skinned like me. I devoured any information I could find and was soon enlightened with information not only on Saint-Georges but also many other “hidden figures” of classical music across the ages.

In performance, I was determined to bring my new-found knowledge to audiences. I started by programming the violin concertos of Saint-Georges in place of traditional composers. There are only five Mozart violin concertos compared to fourteen of Saint-Georges, and my friends who were violinists welcomed the challenge and the variety. I also wanted to keep a footing firmly in the future and promote new music by composers of color, so I added performances of new works by living Black composers alongside the standard repertoire. I was now not limited only to the standard repertoire; my programs were filled with Color.

Marlon Daniel, conductor Saint-Georges: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 11, No. 2 DiMenna Center for Classical Music February 8, 2014


AH: You’re currently editing manuscripts to create new editions of Saint-Georges’ works. Can you discuss this project and the importance of proper documentation?

MD: I believe it was a combination of factors that led to Saint-Georges’ music being neglected over the centuries. In the time of the Code Noir, Napoléon wanted to eradicate everything and everyone in opposition to his ideals. To some, Napoléon wanted to erase Saint-Georges from history, however, I’m not so sure he had only Saint-Georges in mind. Saint-Georges was in direct opposition to Napoléon especially in his wish to reinstate slavery in France. Also, France was in great turmoil at that time. Paris was literally burning. It was an all or nothing mentality: out with the old, in with the new, and many literary works were destroyed.

It should be noted that Beethoven also believed in the democratic and anti-monarchical ideals of the French Revolution. Many know the story of the “Eroica” Symphony, originally dedicated to “Bonaparte”, whom he at that time believed embodied those revolutionary ideals. Later, enraged at what Napoléon had become, in 1804 Beethoven withdrew his dedication.

Racism also likely played a part in the neglect of Saint-Georges. In 1776 had he been allowed to take the position of artistic director of the Académie Royale de Musique, now known as the Paris Opera, the course of history would have been changed. Unfortunately, in 1776 a petition to Queen Marie Antoinette from the three reigning divas of the opera assured Her Majesty that their honor and delicate conscience could never allow them to “submit to the orders of a mulatto.” To keep the incident from embarrassing the queen, with whom Saint-Georges had a close relationship, he withdrew his name from consideration.

We are lucky to have a small number of manuscripts by Saint-Georges that have survived; more than enough to define him as a major composer and influencer of the 18th century. Without Saint-Georges, France would have little musical representation in the Classical Period. History books still to this day show the overwhelming dominance of Germanic composers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during this period. Saint-Georges’ existence proves otherwise.

As the Artistic and Music Director of the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges, I feel it is my responsibility to bring to light the accomplishments and music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. We can do that in two ways: 1. Perform the works to showcase Saint-Georges extraordinary music to the public. 2. Publish the works for other musicians and scholars to be able to learn and share Saint-Georges tremendous musicianship around the world. We program several works of Saint-Georges each festival. My team and I make it a point to make a new critical edition of every work of Saint-Georges’ we perform – working from the original manuscript. We are also always on the lookout of any new discoveries to add to our collection. In Guadeloupe there are plans to create a library dedicated to Saint-Georges and when they do, I hope to have ready as many works as possible to add to the collection and online database.

Today more than ever there is a great need for diversity in classical music. Many conservatories, music schools and competitions often require violinists to perform a concerto by an 18th century composer. Saint-Georges wrote 14 violin concertos (that we know of); why not add his concerti to the list? Or even his quartets or other works to chamber music requirements? This would be an exceptional way to include the works of a wonderful composer of color to the classical music repertoire.


AH: You gave the complete world premiere of Saint-George’s only complete opera The Anonymous Lover. When did you premiere the work? Can you talk about the process of bringing it to life? James Conlon will be giving the West Coast premiere (and company premiere) of the opera, with LA Opera, this November. Have they reached out to you yet for consultation on this project?

MD: I performed the world premiere of L’Amant Annonyme, the only surviving opera of Saint-Georges, in its entirety in 2016 as Music Director of the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston South Carolina. It was difficult because I had to create a new score and parts and since it was not part of the standard repertoire all the singers had to learn it from scratch.

Thankfully we had the help of fantastic French soprano Magali Léger who had done many soprano excerpts with me over the years including a wonderful concert in New York City at Merkin Concert Hall in 2009 that included the heroine of the opera, Léontine’s three arias.

I am so happy that Maestro Conlon and the LA Opera are taking up the helm by performing the opera. It needs to be done. Though I have not been reached out to by the organization, I would of course love to be a part of any project concerning Saint-Georges.

Recently, my team and I have created an abridged concert version of the work of which I am performing with orchestras.


AH: You’re the Artistic and Music Director of the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges, which had its second season in 2019 and is based in Guadeloupe (the birthplace of the composer). The 2019 festival featured world-class artists including J’Nai Bridges, Janinah Burnett, and Solomon Howard. What are your hopes for the future of this festival?

MD: An official Festival of Guadeloupe, the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges has already become one of the largest and most prestigious classical music festival in the Caribbean. It was important to me that this festival represents not just the music but the values that Saint-Georges stands for: diversity, inclusion and artistic excellence. The unique festival offers a plethora of spectacular concerts, featuring international artists of various backgrounds, ethnicities as well as community engagement and educational events that include conferences, masterclasses, workshops and exhibitions.

Every year we attract more tourism to Guadeloupe and audiences wanting to enjoy the concerts and renowned artists we present. My hope is that the festival becomes just as popular and reputable as its European and American counterparts. It already has a most auspicious start. In 2019 the festival celebrated the 220th anniversary of the death of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The final concert of this edition was broadcast throughout French speaking countries on Guadeloupe 1ere and RFO television; it was the first time in history a complete classical music concert was broadcast internationally from Guadeloupe.


AH: You’ve mentioned the wonderful John Adams quote in interviews about Saint-Georges, that he was “the most accomplished man in Europe”. Most pieces about the composer mention that he was an expert fencer (the most famous in Europe at the time), but I’ve heard you say in other interviews that he was also a boxer? And an equestrian and marksman? Can you tell me more about that?

MD: Most of Saint-Georges accomplishments are well documented in the sports arena. In fact, we can thank the sports world for its accurate account of these remarkable feats.

The young Joseph received an exemplary education, attending Tessier de La Boëssière’s famed Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation. The aristocratic boarding school provided a grueling education on everything that a gentleman was supposed to know. This included fencing, boxing, dancing, marksmanship, swimming and a host of other subjects including music. At La Boëssière’s Académie, Saint-Georges excelled. He was a true savant, a Jack of all trades and Master of them all.

Chevalier de Saint-Georges, courtesy of "The Independent"


AH: What are your thoughts on the recent national spotlight on Saint-Georges and the upcoming Disney film?

MD: Over the years I have seen and been consulted on several projects, ranging from educational outreach programs to books, scholarly articles and dramatic productions on Saint-Georges. I would love to see his incredible life realized on the silver screen. It is a fantastic story and it could be hugely inspiring for many people, especially today.


AH: You’ve given many presentations and engagement projects on The Arts and Social Change (at institutions like Yale and Columbia) and many also specifically on Saint-Georges. One of which was a presentation for 400 children on Saint-Georges in the Bahamas. What was that experience like?

MD: Yes, my chamber orchestra Ensemble du Monde and I have been presenting a children’s engagement presentation entitled Before There Was Mozart since 2013. It is an interactive lecture demonstration concert that incorporates parts of the text and illustration art from the children’s book of the same title by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome and expands to other Black composers and even performers. The debut performance in the Bahamas attracted an incredible 400 kids. All of these kids were so engaged in the story and music! They could not believe that a classical music concert featured a composer that looked just like them. We were completely blown away by their interest, reaction and enthusiasm. This led me to think that more organizations should try this approach of not just doing community “outreach” but “engagement” that is more inclusive and show positive role models.

I will never forget after one of these community engagement presentations when a little girl spoke to me afterwards and said “I never knew there was such a thing as a Black conductor. Now I feel like I can do anything.”

The Colour of Music with Marlon Daniel | Black America


AH: What’s on the musical horizon for you?

MD: It’s difficult to predict with COVID-19. I am busy preparing the next Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges scheduled for April 2021, and we are making both in-person and virtual plans. It will showcase a full array of outstanding artists and performances, and more than a few surprises. There are also plans for a tour of France featuring the new concert version of Saint-Georges’ only surviving opera “L'Amant Anonyme.” I will conduct two concerts at the prestigious Havana Mozart Festival 2021, which includes Mozart’s Don Giovanni and a concert featuring works of Mozart and Saint-Georges. I will also continue to give my most popular lectures: “The Arts and Social Change,” “Before there was Mozart” and “Mozart in Black and White.”

In addition, I will continue to guest conducting orchestras across America and Europe, etc. and this fall I join the faculty of Fordham University as Director of Orchestral Ensembles, leading both the Rose Hill Symphony Orchestra and the Lincoln Center Chamber Orchestra.


Following in the footsteps of legendary American Maestro Dean Dixon, conductor Marlon Daniel is a protégé of Finnish conducting pedagogue Jorma Panula. Described as “a natural and enormous talent” by the Chicago Sun-Times, Marlon Daniel is one of the most dynamic conductors of his generation and is a bright light for diversity in classical music.

Marlon Daniel is also is a major exponent of music by composers of African descent and is the world’s foremost interpreter of the music of Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Recently, he successfully débuted with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, Chineke! Junior Orchestra, Pazardzhik Symphony Orchestra, Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra and the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Cuba, where he was the first American conductor invited since President Obama lifted the U.S. embargo of Cuba in 2015 and the only African American to conduct the orchestra in the orchestra’s sixty year history.

Mr. Daniel is former Artistic Director of the International Festival of Composers of African and Afro-Caribbean Descent in The Bahamas, Associate Conductor of the Praga Sinfonietta and Associate Conductor of the Sofia Sinfonietta. He was also Director of the Diversity in Classical Music Program at Columbia University Teachers College and was a Guest Lecturer at Yale University in 2016.

Currently, he is Artistic and Music Director of the Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges, Music Director of Ensemble du Monde (chamber orchestra) and has three recordings under the MSR Classics label.

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