CYCLE
CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921), BETWEEN ROMANTICISM AND MODERNITY

From Paris to Las Palmas,
from the organ of La Madeleine
to the wings of the Palais Garnier,
from the dome of the Institut de
France to the smartest salons,
Saint-Saëns was everywhere,
like some elusive chameleon.

Camille Saint-Saëns could hardly complain that he has disappeared from the history of music. Indeed, the international fame of Le Carnaval des animaux, the Cello Concerto no.1, Danse macabre, the Second Piano Concerto, the ‘Organ’ Symphony and Samson et Dalila places him above Gounod and Massenet in the ranking of posterity. Yet, when one examines his vast catalogue of works, many treasures seem neglected by our concert halls: who is familiar with his string quartets and Piano Quintet? His oratorio in English The Promised Land? His numerous mélodies with orchestral or piano accompaniment? His operas Le Timbre d’argent, Ascanio, Proserpine or Déjanire? After publishing a selection of his correspondence, the Palazzetto Bru Zane has already recorded his cantatas for the Prix de Rome of 1852 (Le Retour de Virginie) and 1864 (Ivanhoé), followed by his tragédie lyrique of 1901 Les Barbares. Each of these rediscoveries has been greeted as of major importance, and so it seemed only natural that the Centre de Musique Romantique Française should devote a cycle to this eclectic and unpredictable artist. This will be the case in the 2016/17 season, notably with the resurrection of a large number of vocal and operatic works (mélodies with piano or orchestra, Proserpine, Le Timbre d’argent)

‘Music is one of the languages
spoken by the Ideal.’ Saint-Saëns, 24 August 1873

The man in brief

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Having lost his father early, Saint-Saëns was raised by his mother, and his great-aunt, who gave him his first piano lessons before sending him to Stamaty, then Maleden. Extraordinarily precocious, he gave his first concert performance at the age of eleven. Two years later, he was at the Paris Conservatoire, taking classes by Benoist (organ) then Halévy (composition). Although he twice failed to win the Prix de Rome, he received numerous awards throughout his career, as well as various institutional appointments, such as his election to the Académie in 1878. As a virtuoso, who held the post of organist at the church of La Madeleine (1857-1877), he impressed his contemporaries. As a prolific, cultured composer, he worked hard to revive the music of some of the great masters of the past, helping to prepare editions of Gluck and Rameau. An eclectic man, he championed both Wagner and Schumann while, as a teacher, his pupils included Gigout, Fauré and Messager. As a critic, he wrote many articles indicative of a liberal, perceptive mind, despite a fondness for the principles of academicism. It was this independence and strong-mindedness that led him to found the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871, and then resign from it in 1886. Admired for his orchestral works, which combined an entirely classical rigour with a style not lacking in innovation (five piano concertos, five symphonies including one, the third , with organ, four symphonic poems, including the famous Danse macabre), he was a composer of international repute, particularly owing to his operas Samson et Dalila (1877) and Henry VIII (1883).

Key Dates

A virtuoso pianist

Trained in the classical school of French piano playing, Saint-Saëns remained all his life a champion of ‘jeu perlé’, the style of playing achieved by moderate usage of the loud pedal and extremely detailed articulation in the fingers. It may seem surprising that he wrote only thirty-four works for his instrument, none of them with any ambitions to be his musical testament. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that his five piano concertos have never left the standard repertory (the Second in particular), despite the competition of Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff in this domain. The piano was more in the nature of a personal laboratory for Saint-Saëns. It acted as the vehicle for his technical experiments (he left three books each containing six études) and was also the recipient of the artist’s passions: the return to the past (Six Fugues, Suite in F major), trips to exotic lands (Africa, the ‘Egyptian’ Concerto, Souvenir d’Ismaïlia, Les Cloches de Las Palmas), scientific analysis through transcription (the Liszt Sonata and Chopin’s B minor Sonata arranged for two pianos, Paraphrase sur La Mort de Thaïs de Massenet, and diverse adaptations of Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Reber, Gounod, Berlioz etc.). Finally, the instrument was also a means of diffusing knowledge: Saint-Saëns the pianist did not champion only his own works (which he arranged himself for piano four hands or two pianos in order to facilitate their diffusion), but also actively promoted Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart and the young generation of French composers such as Alexis de Castillon.

A work of music must possess
elevation or profundity of thought,
purity of form deriving from the
art of its composition, intensity of
feeling and originality of impression. Saint-Saëns, La Nouvelle Revue 1879

An eclectic catalogue

Despite being ‘the world’s foremost organist’ in Liszt’s view, Saint-Saëns composed even less for the organ than for the piano. His thoughts ran entirely in the direction of chamber music, orchestral music and opera. In addition to the piano concertos already mentioned (to which may be added two for cello and three for violin), we owe him five symphonies, four symphonic poems and several concert overtures. Although his catalogue of chamber music is solidly structured around sonatas, trios, quartets and quintets of every variety, it also teems with precious rarities: a Septet for trumpet, strings and piano, a Fantasy for violin and harp, a Caprice sur des airs danois et russes for flute, clarinet, oboe and piano. This variety demonstrates the extent to which Saint-Saëns was capable of diversifying his inspiration and deviating from the traditional paths in order to reach an ever-wider musical public. His vocal and operatic œuvre is still more eloquent in that respect: this generous purveyor of songs with orchestra (some thirty of them, all awaiting rediscovery) also wrote ambitious operas which, like those of Massenet, constantly renew their form and language. The light-hearted (Phryné, La Princesse jaune) rubs shoulders with the monumental (Henry VIII, Étienne Marcel), while the style of tragédie lyrique (Les Barbares, Déjanire) alternates with feverish Romanticism (Ascanio, Le Timbre d’argent), sometimes even tinged with naturalism (L’Ancêtre) or assertive Wagnerism (Proserpine).

An art at once ‘living, national
and human!’: that is precisely
what I am clamouring for. Saint-Saëns, Le Voltaire, July 1881

Landmark Works

Reactionary or pioneer?

Commentators still frequently treat Saint-Saëns condescendingly, in the belief that they know his output, but generally without having the slightest notion of its full range: Proserpine, Le Timbre d’argent, the orchestral songs and many other works still await revival. To assess Saint-Saëns’s modernity, one must not limit the angles of approach to his scores alone (which nonetheless prove that he was the first to introduce the organ into the symphony and successfully moulded the prototype of the symphonic poem, then in its infancy). He sensed the need to create a Société Nationale de Musique in order to give a new lease of life to composition of chamber music in France. He participated in the first modern editions of the masters of the past, including Lully and Rameau, whose music it was necessary to understand, transcribe and adapt. He tried his hand at the new neo-Palestrinian style in his church music (Mass op.4) and reinvented English oratorio in the tradition of Handel (The Promised Land). For him, the twentieth century was not synonymous with decadence: before Poulenc, he grasped the modernity and specificity of the French school of wind playing (writing solo sonatas for clarinet, bassoon, and oboe, a Cavatine for trombone, and a Romance for horn) and he may be regarded as the first composer of film music (L’Assassinat du duc de Guise, 1908), a novelty that would in itself justify his place in the history of innovations. Saint-Saëns the pioneer – is that not the supreme paradox for a supposedly academic artist?

France requires a robust school
of music, capable
of treating on equal terms
with the foreign schools. Saint-Saëns, 1876

CD AND BOOKS