Musical Times

great pretender, The

great pretender, The

Hunter, David

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. His term was marked by considerable reform, resumption of the college’s ‘role as the nursery of the governing classes’, and completion of the library.10

Lady Jemima was married to Philip Yorke, MP, eldest son of the Lord Chancellor.11 When in London they lived at no.4 St. James’s Square, left by Jemima’s grandfather the Duke of Kent to his second wife, Sophia, during her life. In 1740 Jemima had inherited the estates of her grandfather and the Grey family home of Wrest in Bedfordshire, but as the Duke had allowed debts to mount, property in Herefordshire had to be sold. None the less, the couple were quite wealthy, very well-connected, and given to intellectual pursuits.12

Having in previous letters of April and early May 1749 given lively accounts of the fireworks put on in Green Park to celebrate the signing of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (Thursday 27 April) and of the masquerade held at the King’s Theatre (Monday, 1 May), Lady Jemima writes on Monday, 8 May:

But now I think of it I forgot in my last to mention a great & extraordinary Event, one of those unexpected fortunate Events which may happen perhaps once in a whole Life, & which help’d among other new & surprizing Things to make the last Thanks-giving Week so memorable. Guess it if you can? Nothing less I assure you than the Hearing St.-Germain Play.

This Party was made (I can’t imagine how) at Ld. Morton’s: an Invitation from him to the Family at Powis-House (brought about accidentally in Conversation) & to Us here, to dine with him & hear Monsr. le Comte.

James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton (1702-68), lived at no.29 Upper Brook Street (the site now occupied by Brook House on the corner of Upper Brook Street and Park Lane). His first wife, Agatha, had died the previous year. Lord Morton had taken a grand tour to Italy in the late 172Os and had spent time there in the company of fellow antiquary Daniel Wray who was part of the Grey-Yorke family circle.13 Powis House was in Great Ormond Street and was the London home of Jemima’s father-in-law, the Lord Chancellor.14

We went accordingly, met him at Dinner & spent the whole Evening together. After Tea, Coffee &c, his Violin, a Harpsichord & two or three other Instruments appeared & they began. But unfortunately he had a dress’d Coat on which confin’d his Arms, & makes him always very miserable, & there followed many Ceremonies & variety of Consultations about getting a Habit more to his Mind. At last a little Linen Bedgown of LcIy. Browne’s was proposed by her Ladyship (who was come in to be of the Party as well as Sr. Robert) a Messenger dispatch’d for it into the next Street, & le Comte when attir’d in it made as much the figure of a Harlequin as you ever saw.

Dinner was then an afternoon meal. That Saint-Germain should dine in a formal coat that would inhibit his movement is understandable, but to come with instruments and a willingness to play but not to also bring a suitable garment into which he could change seems remarkably poor planning. Sir Robert and Lady Margaret Brown lived at no. 10 Upper Brook Street. She it is who was stigmatised by Charles Burney as being ‘a persevering enemy to Handel’.15 The concerts that she held at her house on Sundays in 1745 were arranged by Saint-Germain. Walpole, in his insinuating way, writes that ‘what makes it more probable that he [Saint-Germain] was a priest, was his professing immaculate chastity, and affirming that he never had felt any sensation of lust; though the intimate manner in which he lived with Lady B. made this very equivocal.’16

But his Play indeed is delightful! The Violin in his Hands has all the Softness & Sweetness of a Flute, & yet all the Strength of the loudest Strings: his Execution is not of that rapid prodigious kind as Veracini & Geminiani; but his Play is more easy & harmonious & his Excellence is Softness. He piques himself you know upon the Expression of the Passions in his Music especially the Tender Ones, & both his Composition & his Manner are almost all Affettuoso: for his Musick is entirely fitted to his own way of Performing & would be nothing I am convinced from anybody else.

LADY Jemima’s opinion of his playing should not be dismissed as mere fashionable sentiment. She attended the opera and oratorio regularly, and her other letters contain numerous remarks on the skills (or lack thereof) of the singers and orchestra. She was also a performer herself; at least the comment she made to her husband while he was at Paris suggests that she was.17 Geminiani had been the leading Italian violin virtuoso in London from 1714-32. Though not a frequent performer in public, he was active as a composer and arranger, and as a teacher and performer at private concerts. After a period in Dublin, Geminiani settled again in London during the 1740s. As violin virtuoso he was supplanted by Francesco Maria Veracini (1690-1768) who came to London in 1733 and remained until 1738, and then returned in 1741. Veracini suffered a shipwreck crossing the English Channel in 1745. Both had vigorous playing styles and employed much passage-work and ornamentation. Jemima returns to the last comment, on Saint-Germain’s style and compositions, in her description of his performance at her own concert.

After he had Play’d a considerable time, Frasi who had been appointed to meet him arrived after the Opera. She is his Favourite Singer I find, he teaches her his Songs & sings Duetts with her & her Only: but he also sung some Songs alone & his Manner then is past all Description.

Giulia Frasi (died 1772) studied with Brivio in Milan and with Burney in London (1749-51).18 Her London debut was at the King’s Theatre in 1742. Handel employed her from 1749, when she sang in Solomon and in the title role of Susanna, and for all the subsequent oratorio seasons. As no operas were then in performance, Lady Jemima presumably means the serenade held at the opera house on Saturday 29 April, thereby establishing a date for Lord Morion’s concert.

I believe you was never honour’d with hearing him [Saint-Germain] though he visited at your House so often. H7e has absolutely no Voice, what he sings with is entirely Feign’d & so low that in a large Room it is quite lost, yet he will raise it sometimes to Thunder out a Song of Rage as much as he will Languish in One of Love: for his Action is still more Expressive than his Sounds. He Accompanies himself without Book, & addresses himself in all he has to express to the Company: he Frowns & Scowls & Threatens & looks like a Fury when he is to be in a Passion, & is so terribly soft & languishing in his Tender Fits that there is no supporting it. – Woe! be to the Person within the reach of his Eye! for he makes Love so violently they must have a most Inflexible Countenance to stand it. As he is wholly possess’d by the part he is Acting, I believe it would be address’d equally to an Old Man or a Young Woman who was his next Neighbour, but poor Miss Yorke who happened to be in that Situation, & not much used to be so address’d nor understanding what he was saying, would have been very glad to be out of it, & look’d so Embarrassee we were not a little diverted. – In short we stay’d there till Twelve o’clock at Night, & were very much entertain’d either by him or at him the whole Time. – I mean the Oddness of his Manner which is impossible not to laugh at, otherwise you know he is very sensible & well-bred in Conversation.

As a testament of authentic performance practice (of both musician and audience), this passage can hardly be bettered. Mid-eighteenth-century writers were explicit. Geminiani begins his Preface to The art of playing on the violin: The Intention of Musick is not only to please the Ear, but to express Sentiments, strike the Imagination, affect the Mind, and command the Passions.’19 Or, as James Harris wrote, ‘Music, and the Wonders, which it works, thro’ its great Professors [derives from a] Power, which consists not in Imitations, and the raising [of] Ideas; but in the raising [of] Affections, to which Ideas may correspond.’20 The performer ‘ambitious to inspire his Audience […] [must, according to Geminiani] be first inspired himself; which he cannot fail to be […] if while his Imagination is warm and glowing he pours the same exalted Spirit into his own Performance.’21 No neo-classical restraint or ‘letting the notes speak for themselves’ cant here, but full-on drama. Miss Yorke, the target in this case, was Margaret (1733-69), the younger daughter of the Lord Chancellor, and thus Lady Jemima’s sister-in-law. She married Gilbert Heathcote a month after this concert. As the eldest son of Sir John Heathcote, 2nd Bt, whom he succeeded in 1759, Gilbert was heir to an extensive landed estate. His father was a trustee of the British Museum and president of the Foundling Hospital.

He [Saint-Germain] was here at the Concert on Wednesday, & as a great Favor staid late on purpose to give us a Couple of Songs when most of the Company were gone. It is vastly agreable as well as Odd to hear him. His Skill is certainly very great, & his Songs are as much suited to his Expression in Singing as his Solos are to his Playing. I had never heard Justice done them before, even by his Other favorite Disciple. She fritters them & makes them so fine that they are nothing: she apes his Manner without having his Force. But I have persuaded myself since I heard him to wonder less at her being so Caught. No Fine Lady can stand at his Elbow while he Sings, & fancy herself a real Object of all that Languishment without its going to her Heart.

Wednesday was 3 May. Lady Jemima apparently held concerts on a regular basis but there are few other references to them in her correspondence. No clue is offered to the identity of ‘his […] favorite Disciple’ other than Frasi but she was perhaps an amateur, one of those Fine Ladies whose hearts were caught by Saint-Germain’s ‘languishment’. The importance of the performer in bringing out the emotive power of Saint-Germain’s songs provides a reason for Burney’s criticism of all but one of the songs of Lincostanza delusa as insipid.22

He is an Odd Creature, & the more I see him the more curious I am to know something about him. He is everything with everybody: he talks Ingeniously with Mr. Wray, Philosophy with Ld. Willoughby, & is gallant with Miss Yorke, Miss Carpenter & all the Young Ladies. But the Character of Philosopher is what he seems to pretend to, & to be a good deal conceited of: the Others are put on to comply with Les Manieres du Monde, but That you are to suppose his real Characteristick; & I can’t but fancy he is a great Pretender in all kinds of Science, as well as that he really has acquired an uncommon Share in some. – Well! so much for Monsr. le Comte de St. Germain, whom neither you nor I have anything to do with, (though he inquir’d very kindly after you:)

Daniel Wray (1701-83) is the aforementioned antiquary, a fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries. Lord Willoughby is Richard Verney, 13th Lord Willoughby de Broke (1693-1752). Miss Carpenter is Alicia, daughter of George, 2nd Baron Carpenter (c. 1695-1749), MP, and his wife Elizabeth (c. 1711-80), who lived in Grosvenor Square. She was described by Mrs. Delany in January 1747 as ‘the reigning beauty […] among the very young things’.23 The Baron died two months after the concert. The young ladies were probably friends of the unmarried women.24

Horace Walpole reports that Saint-Germain ‘spoke Italian and French with the greatest facility, though it was evident that neither was his language; he understood Polish, and soon learnt to understand English and talk it a little. […] But Spanish or Portuguese seemed his natural language.’25 Of his musicianship, Walpole writes that ‘he sung in a most agreeable taste, but with little or no voice’ and characterised his violin playing as exquisite. Lady Jemima concurs that his ‘excellence is softness’ and that his voice is so quiet (except when he rages) ‘that in a large Room it is quite lost’. Walpole’s conclusion is that Saint-Germain ‘was a man of Quality who had been in or designed for the Church. He was too great a musician not to have been famous if he had not been a gentleman.’

Saint-Germain’s oddness (as both Lady Jemima and Walpole characterise his personality) and his dramatic delivery were enhanced by his physical appearance. Walpole describes Saint-Germain as pale, with ‘extremely black’ hair and beard. ‘He dressed magnificently, [and] had several jewels.’ It was obvious to the members of the elite society circles in which he moved that he received, as Walpole puts it, ‘large remittances, but made no other figure’. Improbable as it may seem, when first in England Saint-Germain was sought after by the Prince of Wales, and then was favoured by Philip Dormer Stanhope (1694-1773), 4th Earl of Chesterfield and his wife, according to Walpole. The date and cause of Saint-Germain’s departure from England is unknown though he apparently travelled to India in 1755 with the music-loving ‘General’ Clive.26 Among his friends during the 1750s was Humphry Morice (1723-85), who inherited the estates of his cousin Sir William Morice, 3rd Bt, in 1750, and, in consequence, was elected MP for Launceton that same year. An undated letter from Saint-Germain to Morice indicates that Morice was expected to be one of several travel companions on Saint-German’s journey to Paris but that Morice had to withdraw due to important business.27

BY 1758 Saint-Germain was established in Paris and was an intimate of Mme de Pompadour and Louis XY who provided him with an apartment at the Chateau du Chambord. During the years after an abortive intervention in the secret diplomatic negotiations to secure peace between Britain and France in 1760, Saint-Germain travelled to Russia, Germany and Italy. In 1779 Prince Karl of Hesse provided him with a building in which to conduct scientific experiments. Saint-Germain remained involved in masonic activities in France (if not elsewhere) until his death at Eckernforde, Schleswig, on 27 February 1784.28


1. The Yale edition of Horace Walpole’s correspondence, edd. WS Lewis, et al. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1937-83), vol. 19, pp. 181-82; letter to Horace Mann in Florence, 9 December 1745.

2. Charles Burney: A general history of music, ed. Frank Mercer (New York: Harcourt, Brace, [1935]), vol.2, p.844; first published London, 1776-89. Only Easter Saturday (April 13) saw no performance.

3. Brivio was the impresario at the ducal theatre in Milan from 1727 to 1732, and wrote several operas both during that period and later; his Lincostanza delusa may date from the summer of 1739. See the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 2001), s.v. ‘Brivio’.

4. JH Calmeyer: ‘The Count of Saint Germain or Giovannini: a case of mistaken identity’, in Music & Letters 48 (1967), pp.4-16. See also the biographical summary and work list by Calmeyer in the New Grove dictionary of music, s.v. ‘Saint Germain, Count of.

5. Isabel Cooper Oakley: The Comte de St. Germain: the secret of kings (Milan: Sulli-Rao, 1912), pp.21-22.

6. He had spent the previous five years at the court of the Shah of Persia; see Cooper Oakley, p.44.

7. According to Patricia Howard (and contrary to the article on the Lobkowitz family in the New Grove dictionary of music) there is no evidence that Christoph Willibald Gluck was in the retinue of the Prince or accompanied him to London, though Gluck was in London from late 1745 until the end of April 1746, during which time the Middlesex company performed two new operas by him; see Gluck: an eighteenth-century portrait in letters and documents (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp.8-9, 14-20. Earlier in his career Gluck had been supported in Vienna and Milan by Prince Johann Georg Christian Lobkowitz (1686-1755), the Imperial field-marshal and an uncle of the half blood of Prince Ferdinand; see Patrick de Gmeline: Histoire des princes de Lobkowicz (Nancy: Berger-Levrault, 1977). According to the London Evening Post of 2 August 1748, ‘His Highness Prince Lobkowitz has taken Leave of their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales, and also of the Princess Amelia, being on his Return to Germany’. Whether this refers to Prince Ferdinand is unclear.

8. The autobiography and correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs. Delany (London: Bentley, 1861-63), vol.2, p.445. Prince Ferdinand eventually was the father of Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian, the most lavish supporter of music of the Lobkowitz family; he provided Beethoven and other artists with pensions.

9. Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Record Service; Wrest Park (Lucas) Collection, L30/9a/2.

10. See EG Bill: Education at Christ Church Oxford 1660-1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp.55-59.

11. The chief modern source about Lady Jemima, based on the vast amount of correspondence she sent and received, is Joyce Godber: The Marchioness Grey of Wrest Park (Publications of the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, 47) (Bedford: The Society, 1968).

12. For example, in 1748 Philip’s sister Elizabeth (1725-60) had married Admiral George Anson (1697-1762), MP, who was famous for his circumnavigation, naval victories and plunder.

13. Philip Yorke, one of his brothers, and Wray toured mid and north England in August and September 1744. For a firsthand account see Godber: Marchioness Grey, pp.125-35.

14. Philip Yorke senior, Lord Chancellor 1737-56, and, from 1754 Earl of Hardwicke, was an uncle by marriage of Katherine Knatchbull, James Harris’s half sister. Harris dedicated his Hermes (1751) to Hardwicke; it was from Hardwicke’s second son Charles that he received the most telling criticism of the book; see Clive T. Probyn: The sociable humanist: the life and works of James Harris 1709-1780 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), pp. 173-74. While on a tour through Wiltshire and Hampshire in 1760, Philip Yorke junior, Jemima’s husband, was accompanied by James Harris on a visit to Wilton House (July 30) and dined at his house in the Close at Salisbury; see Godber: Marchioness Grey, p. 159.

15. See my ‘Margaret Cecil, Lady Brown: “Persevering Enemy to Handel” but “Otherwise unknown to History”‘, in Women & Music 3 (1999), pp.43-58.

16. From Walpole’s ‘MS Commonplace Book of Verses’ and quoted in The Yale edition of Horace Walpole’s correspondence, vol.26, pp.20-21.

17. ‘If you do meet with any [opera music] you like that is Printed, let [me] at least have the advantage of Playing it & renewing so agreeable an Idea when you return.’ August 20, 1749. British Library, Add. MS 35376.

18. Sir Joseph Hankey, one of Burney’s patrons in London, ‘procured me Frasi for a scholar’, in Memoirs of Dr. Charles Burney, 1726-1769, edd. Slava Klima, Carry Bowers & Kerry S. Grant (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), p.92.

19. Francesco Geminiani: The art of playing on the violin (London, 1751), p.1; reissued David Boyden, ed. (London: Oxford UP, [1952]).

20. James Harris: Three treatises (London, 1744), p.99.

21. Geminiani: Art of playing, p.8.

22. Burney: General history, p.844.

23. Delany: The autobiography, vol.2, p.450. In 1751 Alicia (died 1794) married Sir Charles Wyndham (1710-63), 4th Bt, MP, who had succeeded his uncle as 2nd Earl of Egremont the previous year.

24. It is unlikely that Jemima would have used the generic term for her especial friend Catherine Talbot, or for Ladies Charlotte and Mary Capell, the daughters of the Earl of Essex.

25. Yale edition, vol.26, pp.20-21.

26. Cooper Oakley, p.47. The East India Company had toasted Robert Clive as such on his return from his first visit to India in 1753, but his rank on departing Britain in 1755 was lieutenant-colonel. Clive’s modern biographers mention only his wife, her companion Jenny Kelsall (the daughter of his wife’s uncle), and his cousin George Clive as travelling companions. They embarked on the Stretham at Deal 5 April 1755 and arrived at Bombay in early November 1755.

27. Northumberland Record Office, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, ZSW 554/4.

28. Cooper Oakley, p.47. Saint-Germain may have been born in 1712; ibid., p.45.

David Hunter is Music Librarian at the University of Texas at Austin.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Winter 2003

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