The Great Pretender

By Hunter, David | Musical Times, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Great Pretender


Hunter, David, Musical Times


Monsieur le Comte de Saint-Germain

DAVID HUNTER seeks out the gifted yet enigmatic 18th-century musican and Handel Opponent'

AMONG THE VARIOUS opponents of Handel set up by his biographers, the most enigmatic is the Comte de SaintGermain. Though his status as a musician has never been in doubt (John Walsh junior issued several of his works), we have so far lacked any description of his capabilities other than Horace Walpole's 'He sings, plays on the violin wonderfully, composes, is mad, and not very sensible.'1 Charles Burney wrote that Saint-Germain contributed some of the songs to Lincostanza delusa, an opera performed at the Haymarket Theatre in London on all but one of the Saturdays from 9 February to 20 April 1745.2 This pasticcio, constructed by Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) from songs by Giuseppe Ferdinando Brivio and Saint-Germain had, according to Burney, inconsiderable success, though its mere existence has provoked some of Handel's biographers into characterising it as a deliberate attempt to draw audiences away from oratorio performances at the King's Theatre nearby.3 Saint-Germain made no public appearances as a performer and thus the discovery of a detailed description of two private concerts held in London during the last week of April and the first week of May 1749 is the more valuable and sheds considerable light on the exalted social circles in which he moved.

The fantastic accretions to the life of SaintGermain were examined and discarded by JH Calmeyer in 1967.4 Unfortunately, his article has not dislodged the belief beyond music history that Saint-Germain was active as an astrologer, and pursued alchemy (rather than applying the scientific knowledge of the day to industrial processes, for which there is documentary proof) and other aspects of the occult. Admittedly, the man deliberately obscured his origins and used numerous pseudonyms, including Saint-Germain, which has given rise to his being identified with Claude Louis, Comte de Saint German, a notable French general and minister of war, and Robert-Francois Quesnay de Saint Germain who was active as an occultist. There is no evidence that Saint-Germain the musician was ever the holder of a noble title; at least, he is not in the lists of the nobilities of France, Denmark, or the Holy Roman Empire.

While his birth and upbringing have yet to be fully clarified, it is possible that he was a protege of Gian Gastone, Grand Duke of Tuscany and last of the Medicis, and was a student at Siena University.5

If Walpole is correct, Saint-Germain came to London in 1743.6 The claim that he was in the retinue of Prince Ferdinand Philipp Joseph Lobkowitz (1724-84), a composer and violinist, who was in London from the autumn of 1745 to perhaps the summer of 1746, and to whom the libretto of L'incostanza delusa was dedicated, can hardly be upheld even in terms of chronology.7 The Prince was in London to woo Lady Emily Lennox, second daughter of Charles, 2nd Duke of Richmond. As Mrs Delany put it in a letter of November 1746, 'he was in love with her and made proposals of marriage, but the Emperor would not consent for some foolish reason of state.'8

The new information on Saint-Germain comes from one of the seven volumes of excerpts of letters by Jemima, Marchioness Grey (1722-97) made by the writer herself.9 The first two-and-a-half volumes contain copies of her letters to Lady Mary Gregory (nee Grey), who, though her aunt, was more like an older sister, there being only a three-year age difference, and with whom she spent much of her childhood. Lady Mary (1719-61) had by 1749 married her long-time suitor Dr David Gregory (1696-1767), and was the mother of several children. Her husband had been the first Professor of History and Modern Languages at Oxford (appointed in 1724), a position he resigned on being appointed to a canonry of Christ Church in 1736. In 1756 Gregory was appointed Dean of Christ Church and the couple moved into the Deanery. …

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