Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges


Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges features highly on my (wipe clean) laminated list of Dead People I Would Do. The mulatto son of a slave was a virtuoso composer, conductor, fencer, horseman and athlete, not to mention a devastating dancer and heroic soldier, campaigning against slavery by using his very body and creativity as an exemplar of humanity. It seems incredible that this protege of Marie Antionette is so little known; his cartoonish brilliance would have made him a perfect character in Sofia Coppola's dreamlike film. Dubbed Le Mozart Noir, his violin concertos are actually Mozart On Ice; less complex, less subtle, but with a clear, soaring sweetness which make them perfect for frosty mornings.

Chances are he won't even be mentioned in this month's Red Violin festival in Cardiff, which features fiddle-related films, concerts, exhibitions and talks, and Madeleine Mitchell's Big Ffidil 'sounding' model violin installation, which she has been discussing today on Woman's Hour.

The success of this decade-old event reflects that the violin has a profound emotional and artistic, as well as musical, resonance. It is the most human of instruments, all gut and hair and fragile wood, a bulbous baby's body cradled on the shoulder to be coaxed into vocal verisimiltude, and my two most memorable violin recitals were both intimate, idiosyncratic solos performed in honour of lives well lived. One was an aching rendition of Vaughan Williams' ubiquitous, ambitious Lark by Andrew Haveron at the Francis Minter memorial service in a tiny, cold church in Adderbury; the other a medley of modestly miraculous Gilbert and Sullivan melodies at my grandfather's memorial service in a tiny, cold church in Turville.

My grandfather's hands were beautiful. The rough-skinned rub of his thumb on my palm was like the lick of a cat's tongue; the span of his bony fingers ranged fiddlestrings with nonchalant brilliance. I saw at his inherited violin with more enthusiasm than talent, but every time I struggle with my Saint-Georges Concerto in C Major, I play it badly, passionately, utterly for him.