Repeat something enough times with conviction, and people start to believe it, whether it has to do with politics, economics or art.
French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, who bridged the Romantic and Modern eras thanks to an 86-year lifespan, was treated as a relic of a bygone age by his obituarists and university lecturers.
It’s a status that does not square with a legacy of rich craft he left behind, and which deserves a fresh look and listen now that we can have some perspective on the aesthetic steamroller of Modernism.
Two recent albums — one new, one a valuable reissue — can only help rehabilitate this great creative mind. Saint-Saëns is best known for Carnival of the Animals, written in 1888, his opera Samson et Dalila (1877), his two concertos each for the violin and cello, and his “Organ” Symphony (1886). These are but little windows into a wider musical universe.
But first, a bit of biographical background.
Saint-Saëns was born in Paris, in 1835, and gave his first concert at age 11. The concert featured Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and the Piano Concerto No. 15 (K450) by Mozart, embellished with Saint-Saëns’ own cadenzas. (Let’s remember he was playing on something like Chopin’s Pleyel piano; the modern concert grand wouldn’t be perfected for another four decades.)
He was accepted into the Conservatoire in Paris in 1848, graduating with the Organ Prize in 1851, at age 16. His teachers included opera composer Jacques Fromental Halévy. He immediately started entering composer competitions (he twice lost a Prix de Rome, but did well elsewhere), and took his first full-time organist’s job in 1853, at Saint-Merri, in central Paris.
That year, at age 18, he also wrote his first published symphony, which caught the attention of Franz Liszt, who came to Paris to hear Saint-Saëns play the organ at his next parish, the vast neo-classical Madeleine Church, in 1857, and grandly declared the 22-year-old Frenchman to be the world’s best organist.
Saint-Saéns could, essentially, do no wrong until after the turn of the century. He became an avid traveller, spreading the gospel of his carefully constructed music as far as the United States. Queen Victoria thought he was marvellous, as did Czar Alexander III in Russia.
When a production of Racine’s Andromaque was built around Sarah Bernhardt, she demanded incidental music from the French composer. He wrote a cantata for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, The Celestial Fire, meant as a metaphor for the arrival of domestic electricity.
A stodgy, starchy composer wouldn’t have given the time of day to electricity.
But Saint-Saëns had an inquiring mind. He spent the money from his first big commission on a telescope, and wrote articles on a wide range of topics.
(His personal life was far more colourful than we can imagine. Saint-Saëns married a woman half his age in 1875, their two sons died in early childhood and the composer ran away from home into the arms of young men, many of them in North Africa. He would frequently cross the Mediterranean under assumed names, and died in Algiers, in 1921.)
Saint-Saëns was the first French composer to include Arabic themes in his music, and the first to write tone poems. He was the first to write for harmonium.
He even produced a set of pieces for piano-harmonium duo. A Prélude from this set of pieces is played nicely here by the great Xaver Varnus and pianist Anikó Novák at the Palace of the Arts in Budapest, in 2007:
He also wrote the first official movie score, to be played live during the screening of The Assassination of the Duke de Guise, in 1908:
Saint-Saëns was the first star composer to write music specifically for the player organ, which leads us to a recent release of his organ music by on the Hyperion label.
That’s a lot of firsts, so we need to address what it is that made people in the 20th century feel so distanced from Saint-Saëns’ aesthetic.
This is how the composer described his approach to art (I’m translating):
For me, art is form. Expression and passion are what first seduce a listener. For the artist, it is different. The artist who is not fully satisfied by elegant lines, harmonious colours and a beautiful sequence of chords does not understand art. During the 16th century people wrote admirable pieces from which all emotion was excluded.
So, in fact, Saint-Saëns is not a true Romantic, but a neo-classicist who, nonetheless, incorporated the nationalism of the late-Romantics and some of the experiments in orchestral colour that marked new work in the early 20th century.
He was also a performer-composer, something alien to us today, who always needed to add a dash of drama to a soloist’s musical role.
In short, Saint-Saëns defies easy categorization – to the natural detriment of his popularity in a world defined by specialties and neat categories.
The challenge with comprehensive surveys of any composer’s work is in distributing the great stuff amongst the lesser pieces. English organist and conductor Andrew-John Smith has, in his third album in a survey of Saint-Saëns’ organ output, mixed some anonymous-sounding pieces to be played during Mass, meant to add atmosphere to ritual rather than draw attention to themselves, with two treats: Three Rhapsodies on Bretton Carols, Op. 7 (1866) and the world-premiere human recording of the Fantasy for Aeolian Organ, from 1906.
The Three Rhapsodies, dedicated to Saint-Saëns’ student Gabriel Fauré, who had just landed his first church organist post, are elaborate variations that recall similar pieces from the French Baroque, notably the Noëls of Louis-Claude Daquin that are still popular today.
But the Fantasy is the real find — a 23-minute carnival of sound that begins with deceptive modesty, built on careful thematic development. Written for a monster player organ, the composer himself considered it unplayable by real human hands and feet. In 1988, Rollin Smith transcribed the original rolls into music notation, so that it could be published for performance.
People expecting the rich, round sounds of a typical French symphonic organ will be a bit surprised by the bright voicing of the trumpets on the composer’s Cavaillé-Coll organ at La Madeleine (built in 1846) used for the recording.
You can find more details on this nicely produced album, as well as sound samples, here.
The great French conductor Jean Martinon (1910-1976) made a remarkable series of recordings of all five Saint-Saëns symphonies in Paris between 1972 and 1975 with the French Radio and Television Orchestra.
Martinon had absolute control over the orchestra and, perhaps because he was a composer, laid out Saint-Saëns’ music with beautiful clarity. It’s in the careful pacing that these pieces really captivate.
A bonus is that these LPs were made at the peak of the age of analogue recording, with its full, warm sound. It makes this music an absolute pleasure to listen to.
Brilliant Classics has reissued a two-CD set that includes Saint-Saëns’ three “official” symphonies, along with two more he wrote as a student at the Conservatoire. The first one, in A Major, is a gem of of a three-movement piece lasting 25 minutes that owes a lot to the neat forms of Schubert.
The first disc is completed with the published Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2, which show the composer’s style, although steeped in Classical forms, broadening and deepening.
The second disc contains another initially unpublished work, the Symphony in F “Urbs Roma,” from the composer’s teenage years, followed by the famous Symphony No. 3, the “Organ Symphony,” with Bernard Gavoty (1908-1981) at the much-rebuilt 17th century organ of Saint-Louis des Invalides, where he was titular organist for many years, starting in 1942.
The voicing on the organ is not a perfect match with the modern orchestra playing in the space below, but the tension in the sound adds character to this colourful interpretation.
The fact that conductor and organist were both alive at the same time as Saint-Saëns means nothing at all, but for me it provides a reassuring sense of historical continuity from musicians who were all devoted to the music of their country. (Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if we could have some of that in Canada.)
You can find all the details here.
There’s a good, concise biography of Camille Saint-Saëns by Jacques Bonnaure that was published in France by Actes Sud in 2010. More on that book here.
Here are three samples of lesser-known pieces of music by the composer, starting with Africa, a Fantasy for piano and orchestra, Op. 89, with Marc-André Hamelin at the keyboard:
The composer himself accompanying mezzo Meyrianne Héglon in Mélodie persane, in 1904:
The opening movement of his Op. 41 Piano Quartet (premiered in 1875 with the composer at the piano and Pablo de Sarasate playing violin), here in a 2010 concert by Quartetto Anthos and pianist Francesco Spazian:
And the Agnus Dei from Saint-Saëns’ operatic Requiem, Op. 54, in a recording by the Choir and Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana under conductor Diego Fasolis, soprano Marie-Paule Dotti, mezzo Guillemette Laurens, tenor Luca Lombardo and bass Nicolas Testé: