Praise Song For A Chevalier

The Chevalier St. George

Gabriel Banat Resurrects a Musical Ancestor

Around forty years ago I was leafing through J.A. Rogers’ remarkable study The World’s Great Men of Color from 3,000 B.C. to 1946 A.D. – a two volume tome that changed my life – and I stumbled upon the picture of a dashing dusky man who looked like my buddy Sonny Jackson with long hair and dressed in the ostentatious style of European noblemen I saw in the movies.   He was holding a sword in one hand and the caption said he was the “Chevalier de Saint Georges.”  It was clear to me that this handsome, intriguing figure from the distant past was unlike any black man or “Negro,” as we were universally known back then, I had ever seen.  So I lingered upon the page and read the biographical sketch that accompanied the picture. The tersely written tale told me enough about the highlights of his life to cause me to insert him into a novel I’ve written decades later.  But since the book was fiction it didn’t require me to seek knowledge of this fascinating character beyond what I had learned from Rogers.

As it turns out, most of what has been written about St. Georges by those who have pretended to be about the business of writing serious history has also turned out to be fiction.  But Gabriel Banat has finally set the record straight in his new book, The Chevalier St. Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and Bow, published as a part of PENDRAGON books “Lives In Music Series.”  This fully fleshed biography is history at its best – and as a former history professor who never lost my curiosity about the past I have read thousands of historical tomes.  First of all, when dealing with a subject who has a specialized skill, the narrative is always enriched if the historian is also a master of the same trade.  When the skill is of such a magnitude that it amounts to a rare gift, and the product of their genius a kind of inexplicable alchemy – such as mastering the violin, composing string quartets, symphonies and operas, then conducting them all – having another great musician tell his story is on the order of a blessing.

Gabriel Banat, one of the great violin virtuosos of the twentieth century, has told the Chevalier’s story superbly.   In a book of nearly six hundred pages we are graced with a richly documented elegantly written narrative of the Life of Joseph Bologne, the mulatto son of a wealthy French planter on the Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe, who was taken by his father to Paris as a child when he realized that the racial laws on the island would afford his dusky son no chance to excel in life.   This proved to be a good move because young Joseph would grow up to be one of the most famous and accomplished men in 18th century Parisian society as France’s greatest swordsmen and one of the era’s finest violinist/composers.  As a Hungarian Jew who was a child prodigy on the violin when the Nazis’ invaded his home land and his prosperous middle class parents became fugitives from the German death machine, Banat is able to empathize with the racial ordeals of St. Georges in a way that most white men could not.  And the reader benefits from his insights as he reconstructs the inner life of St. Georges.

The extent to which a biographer succeeds at his task is more often than not determined by whether they can get the right balance between the personal narrative of the subject and the details necessary to reconstruct the historical milieu in which that life develops.  It is a task that has tested the talents of many seasoned historians for whom history writing is a life work undertaken after rigorous training in the field.  Which makes this work something of a marvel, considering that the author has spent his life mainly as a great performing musician, because this is not simply a good history for a musician to have written; it would be an exemplary work for anyone to have authored.

To the good fortune of the careful reader Mr. Banat has adroitly woven the life narrative of St. Georges through the tumultuous history of his times, a period that encompasses the three great bourgeois revolutions of the Eighteenth Century in America, France and Haiti.  Not only does he discuss the impact of these events on French society, but how they affected St. Georges personally and his response to them.  For instance he recounts how St. Georges commanded an all black regiment in the French Revolution and fought to suppress slavery in Haiti.

Mr. Banat has searched the archives with a fine eye for the relevant documents to support his fantastic tale.  Facsimiles of some of them are reproduced in this text, which gives the reader the impression that they are witnessing history in the making.  Mr. Banat, who argues that his subject’s parents were in love not just the master/slave relationship that was the common practice in Guadeloupe, took special care to retrieve the documents verifying that St. Georges father went back to Guadeloupe and brought his African mother to join them in Paris, thus demonstrating his love for her.

But in the end this is a story about an amazing individual of whom his biographer says: “One would be hard pressed to find an adventure novel more captivating than the factual story of the Chevalier de St Georges…His physical prowess, particularly in the art of fencing, attracted the attention of Louis XV, who made him a gendarme du roi and a chevalier.”  A skilled horseman, prodigious swimmer, master musician, revolutionary leader, ladies man and bon vivant, plus the best dressed man at the Versailles Courts of Louis the XV and XVI, there was no more striking figure in Enlightenment France than the Chevalier St. Georges.

As a former Smith college professor, conductor and virtuoso violinist who has performed the master works of the violin literature with the world’s leading orchestras Mr. Banat has extensive knowledge of European classical music and the art of violin playing; which he displayed to the delight of an admiring audience in the Bruno Walter Auditorium in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts last Thursday, February 22. In a vastly informative lecture in which he reconstructed the life, times, and music of Chevalier St. Georges, Banat was simultaneously the careful historian with his power point presentations of official documents, pictures and musical scores projected on a giant screen, and the virtuoso violinist performing St. Georges compositions for the violin.  Some were in quartet form; others were for violin and piano.

In order to illustrate his arguments for the importance of St. Georges as a transitional figure in the development of violin technique and composition in eighteenth century Europe – which is where all the action was – he performed passages from other composers who were influenced by his ideas; such as the great Germans Mozart and Beethoven.   Projecting the scores up on the giant screen he would discuss their logic and architecture and then play them for us, tracing the development of musical ideas from St. Georges through the work and collaborations of particular violinist and composers.

Although Mr. Banat considers himself in retirement—after suffering through two rotator cuff operations, which sounds more like a football player’s fate than a musician’s –and is reluctant to play in public anymore, his performance was splendid even by his elevated standards.   If virtuosity is the ability to make the difficult look easy, then Gabriel Banat remains the virtuoso par excellence – as all who witnessed him play some passages from St. Georges Concerto for violin Opus 5 #2 will attest.  Now an octogenarian, he began playing the violin at seven years old and gave his first professional performance at twelve.   He was forty three years old when he joined the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the first violinist chair, and he still has and amazing clarity of tone that is warm and sparkles with a rich lyricism.

The distinguished musicians who collaborated with Gabriel in this love fest for the largely ignored Chevalier – Violinist Kathleen Thomson, Violist Diana Banat and Cellist Gerald Kagan – were all first rate.  The sound of the quartet was so exquisitely balanced it was clear to me that only superb musicians with a spiritual bond could have produced it.  The acoustics in the recital room was excellent and I could hear each instrument clearly in the mix, which made it possible to enjoy St. Georges’ beautiful harmonies and witty repartee between the various viol voices.  And Susan Kaman’s piano accompaniment was superb, the brilliant notes rolling out of the Baldwin Grand like silver streams from a sonic fountain, on the duet she performed with Gabriel Banat.  Together these master musicians produced the airy elegance of the Rocco style with such authenticity that I could close my eyes and let the music transport me back to some petite drawing room in Versailles crowded with extravagantly gowned belles and perfumed dandies.  The Afro-American novelist/essayist Ralph Ellison, an itinerant musician who wrote so insightfully about music, once correctly observed that “Music gives resonance to memory,” and great music can also stimulate the imagination.

There will be many celebrations of black genius during this Afro-American History Month, but I doubt that any will be more truly informative or entertaining.  It was a tour de force – as many in the audience who had come after hearing him on my radio show “Round bout Midnight” on WBAI the night before – told me.  One Afro-American father brought his two young sons who are budding violinists.  I watched as they sat wide-eyed, their animated body language revealing their excitement, and I knew if it could pass the test of these candid critics – who are innocent of deceit – it was indeed a good show.  Bravo!

Gabriel Banat in Performance

Originally Published in

The Black World Today

Saturday, 24 February 2007

By Playthell Benjamin


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