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The Arabella Quartet and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

 Arabella Quartet (Alexandre Lecarme, cello; Sarita Kwok, violin; Julie Eskar, violin; Ettore Causa, viola)
Ettore Causa
courtesy of the artists
Arabella Quartet (from left: Alexandre Lecarme, cello; Sarita Kwok, violin; Julie Eskar, violin; Ettore Causa, viola)

The odds that a child born to an enslaved person and slave owner in the Caribbean during the 1700’s would attain a life of wealth and prestige among European society would seem, historically, to render the term “long shot” almost meaningless. Yet, that trajectory describes the life of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Bologne’s story - from his earliest days on the island of Guadaloupe to his prominence as one of the finest sportsmen in Europe to his acquaintance with Marie Antoinette - is so rich in achievement and drama that it seems crazy that it’s taken so long for someone to think of making a movie about it. CRB’s Tyler Alderson offers a nice roundup of that incredible life story in “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

The Arabella Quartet’s new recording of the composer’s six Concertantes Quartets, written in 1777, is another kind of window into Bologne’s life and work. Violinist Sarita Kwok talked with me about these short, rarely heard but supremely elegant pieces, what the Arabella had to confront in recording them, and how they add to our understanding of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

To hear the conversation, use the player above, and read the transcript below.

This recording was made in GBH’s Fraser Performance Studio, recorded and produced by GBH Music lead engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. It is available from Naxos.

Learn more about the Arabella String Quartet.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at WCRB with Sarita Kwok, violinist for the Arabella Quartet. Sarita, thanks so much for joining me today.

Sarita Kwok Thank you for having me, Brian. It's a pleasure to be here.

Brian McCreath Your new release with the Arabella Quartet, music by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, one of the great names in music to begin with, but also so much great about this figure in history. I'm curious about your choice to even dive into this repertoire. What was the original inspiration to take on these very short but very beautiful quartets by Bologne?

Sarita Kwok Yeah, so back in 2017, we had just released a recording with Naxos, and after that came out, they approached us, actually, with a list of composers from the 18th century that were, shall we say, lesser known. And Chevalier de Saint-Georges was on that list. Immediately, I was fascinated just by his name, I'd sort of heard of him briefly, but really didn't know his music. And so that was the moment, back in, like, summer of 2017, when we started to investigate who this character was.

And through that process, first of all, we really became enamored with him as a person and a character and with the story of his life, one of the greatest stories in the history of classical music, I guess you could say. He was just an incredible character. And so, that was the first kind of introduction we had to him. There wasn't a whole lot, in fact, that I don't think there have been any recordings of sets of his six quartets. You know, he wrote three sets of six quartets, and they'd sort of being recorded sporadically. I can think of actually a Juilliard String Quartet recording from the '70s ...

Brian McCreath Oh, okay.

Sarita Kwok ... of his Opus One, Number One. But other than that, very few recordings of the string quartets, though some recordings with the concerti he wrote. And so, we became fascinated immediately by the prospect of this project. It took about four years to get us into the recording studio. But the whole process was fascinating because we worked with Artaria Editions, who is sort of a publishing arm of Naxos, and they focus on little known works of the 18th century and publishing them. And so that was a great relationship, collaborative relationship that we were able to enjoy.

Brian McCreath Well, so let's get back to the story of his life in a minute. But first, tell me now about the specific six quartets that you recorded and what you encountered when you first saw them. What did you see in these quartets that was somehow distinct from other quartets that your group no doubt is deeply entrenched with?

Sarita Kwok Right. So, Saint-Georges was a violinist, a virtuoso violinist, and he wrote three sets of six quartets that we know of. It's possible that many were lost. And the set that we recorded was Six Concertante Quartets. So they were actually the middle of his three sets. The first set was written very early in his life, and the last towards the end.

What's different about them? They are two-movement works, right? So, they're very short. They're sort of very concise. Almost always, there's a Rondo movement in there, and variations. They're incredibly charming. They're not particularly revolutionary. So, when we think of composers of the classical period, we're often hearing sort of later Mozart, later Haydn, maybe early Beethoven. And we're often hearing and thinking about composers who kind of revolutionized things a little bit, were a little bit radical for their time. Chevalier de Saint-Georges was not, well, I guess in some ways you would say that his music was quite conventional. But at the same time he was one of the earliest composers of string quartets in France.

Brian McCreath I was just going to say, this wasn't actually a really popular format. We think of string quartets being so rich and so deep in repertoire, but that wasn't really even happening in Paris.

Sarita Kwok So, I think there were, maybe, some quartets of, like, [François-Joseph] Gossec around at the time. And then here was Saint-Georges writing these string quartets. And of course, they're very different from his concertos. I mean, he was known at the time as a virtuoso violinist and the Concertmaster of this Concert des Amateurs [ensemble in Paris], and he was playing his own concerti. But I think, in the private sphere, you have these string quartets. And they're really quite different in character, I would say, from the concerti, because they're not overtly virtuosic, they're actually very charming and elegant and very, very much the idea of salon music or music to be played among friends. And so, that was fun for us to enjoy that.

Brian McCreath But the way that you describe that also makes me think of some music from that period and even on into the 19th century where they might have been written for amateurs, but there's still like one instrument that's, like, the featured instrument. In this music, it seems like all four parts of the quartet play these equal roles. Not that that's completely revolutionary, but it does distinguish these from some of those other pieces that were written for use in the home.

Sarita Kwok Absolutely. What is most distinctive, I think, of these quartets is the quality of the two violins. They spar. They are in conversation all through the quartets. The parts are written incredibly equally, very unusual for the time, which, you know, our quartet immediately latched onto that and really enjoyed it because Julie, the other violinist and I, we, we switch playing first and second violins. And of course, there are some pretty incredible cello solos in there that are very high and register. Again, you know, maybe we hear those kind of solos in, like, Mozart's late, the "Prussian" Quartets. But this early on it was very unusual.

Brian McCreath I want to go back now because we've teased it enough now, and we need to sort of unpack this guy's life. You said "spar" in your description of how the violins work, which is perfectly apt for Bologne, as one of the great fencers of his era.

Sarita Kwok He was THE champion fencer of his era. Not only was he a fencer, though, he was a marksman, you know, he was a horseman. He was a boxer. So he was an elite athlete, basically. He excelled in, sounded like, everything that he did. I mean, it seems I think that he perhaps felt the need to prove himself so that he could, you know, because he had this sort of inside / outside relationship with French nobility, being half black. You know, his mother was a 17-year-old slave.

And his father was a French plantation owner slash nobleman. And so he had some, he had access to nobility, but not really, right? He couldn't bear any titles. He couldn't marry in the circles of nobility. And so, that obviously weighed heavily on his life. And I just wonder if that was part of the motivation that forced him to be so excellent in so many areas. I mean, the guy must have had like an unbounded energy. I don't know how he achieved everything that he did.

Brian McCreath Right, I know, it is a remarkable life. But I guess that to bring it back to this recording, you have this amazingly charming, beautiful music that, as you say, it may not be completely revolutionary, but it's certainly distinct from the time that it was being written. What does that life mean to you as a performer, as an ensemble for all of you, when you approach this music? How does that context help you with what you're doing with your instruments?

Sarita Kwok It certainly gave us inspiration. I mean, it's very difficult to pinpoint sort of an event in Saint-Georges's life and directly correlate it to a piece of music. I mean, it's almost impossible to do that unless the composer's absolutely spelled that out for us. But for us, it was, one, a matter of just kind of giving voice to the music of a composer whose voice had been lost for centuries, you know, and who had kind of fallen into obscurity.

But, two, it helped us to imagine kind of the degree of free spirited, I would say, vibrant, or high spirited, rather, this free spirited, you know, kind of a vibrancy to his music, as well as an elegance if you're sort of thinking about the circles in which he was able to kind of circulate. That just gave us kind of, even a visual picture of what we wanted the music to sound like, if that makes sense.

Brian McCreath Oh, totally. Yeah. Yeah, no, I mean, that's the thing about this music, like most music from that time, composers didn't tend to write autobiographically in the way they may a century later, you know, that they would sort of put their, quote, emotions into the music. It was really distanced. But I see what you're saying, that his life represented this world of gentility, of grace and elegance. And so, with all those other remarkable aspects of his life, those things have to be present in this music.

Sarita Kwok I think there is something a little bit more private about Saint-Georges that we experience in the string quartets, because if you listen to his concerti, they're absolutely vehicles for a showman. They are technically so much more difficult than any of the classical concertos of the time for the instrument, I would say. And he obviously must have had quite a persona on stage to have been performing his own concerti. And then you come to these quartets, and you do have more of a sense of perhaps who the inner Saint-Georges, the real Saint-Georges may have been, maybe when he was comfortable amongst friends to play chamber music and to share some of the spotlight with other musicians in a more private setting. And that was kind of fun to explore.

Brian McCreath And that is, contrary to what I just said, that does open a little bit of biography there. You're right, because, I think, when we're considering a person of his background, of his position in society, there would be this tension between the private and the public, maybe much more acutely than there would be for the standard nobility, if I could just coin a phrase there. So these quartets do offer that maybe more intimate window to a figure that we're not that familiar with. And if that's what leads to an approach to the music for you as musicians, I think that that's absolutely valuable and a terrific way to to unlock some of the musicality.

What were some of the decisions that you had to make? You talked about the score, the errors in the score and all the all the, like, edition problems. What were some of the pure musical challenges that you had to take on that you maybe didn't expect so much?

Sarita Kwok Yeah, ornamentation was high up there on the on the list in terms of where we wanted to ornament, especially with the two violins, often passing motifs between us and melodic material between us.

Tempi? Everything's basically an Allegro, you know. So what did that mean? Both, in actually all of the movements, there was, there's like two slow movements in all of the six quartets that we played. So, there was not, you know, just making sure that what we played also had variety. So, but yeah, ornamentation was something that we experimented a lot with, which to be honest with you, is not something that we do a lot in the repertoire that we normally play. So that was kind of fun.

We made decisions, even like whether to sit or stand, whether to face each other, so, like we recorded with the two violins on opposite sides of the quartet because we felt that that got more of a... We were able to communicate better to get that sense of "sparring" sitting in that formation.

The errors are there. There were some notational errors which we sorted out pretty quickly, but actually some of the repeats in the da capos we had to really... Those were completely musical decisions because we had to make sense of when the theme should come and what should happen harmonically. And some of the things that were in the score were not in agreement with what were in the parts.

And so here we are interpreting brand new old music with basically no performance history, right? So we had no other recordings of these quartets to even have a sense of how they might have been played, because they weren't played for centuries, literally. And so, gosh, what an honor to record them, but also quite a bit of pressure because, you know, we wanted to do justice to these works because they deserve it.

Brian McCreath So tell me about these works. Now that you know them so intimately, what place do you feel like these works should hold in the wider repertoire? I mean, they're not as you say, they're short, they're two movement. So they're not going to be the major sort of anchor of any quartet program. But they have a role to play. I mean, in fact, I imagine Arabella maybe has some concerts where you're going to use these pieces. And what role do they play alongside, you know, Ravel and Beethoven and everything else that is so great about the quartet literature?

Sarita Kwok It's kind of fun, actually. We did a program where we kind of traced French string quartets and we started with Saint-Georges. And, actually, we happened to end that program with Ravel. But this music is great to open any concert or show because it's just so inviting.

Brian McCreath Yeah.

Sarita Kwok And it's very alive. You know, it's invigorating. And you want to hear more, but it's sort of short and it's like a piece of candy almost, you know, it's there and then it's done, and you don't feel like you're hanging out there for too long. So, it's the sort of piece that I think we very regularly open a program with, actually.

Brian McCreath Yeah. Well, Sarita Kwok it's so good to talk about this with you and learn some things that I really didn't even expect from you about these quartets and about the project. It's just fantastic. So thanks a lot for your time today.

Sarita Kwok Thanks for having me, Brian.