Saint-Saens: Everyone’s favorite ‘lightweight’
The music of Camille Saint-Saens has delighted music-lovers in Europe and the United States for more than a hundred years, never seeming to be outdated or derivative. Only pigheaded, stuffy critics have tried to dismiss him for being overly accessible to non-musicians.
Ear-candy, limited imagination, failure to overwhelm – such is the language of their attempts to discourage us. But today’s public is still not discouraged. More than a hundred recordings have been made of his suite of 14 light pieces he called “The Carnival of the Animals”, and a range of his other works remain in the standard repertoire.
Tributes to his music in all its forms poured in at the hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death in 2021.
Even Saint-Saens worried that his critics would seize upon his Carnival to question his credetials as a serious composer. He was mainly criticized for not being Beethoven. His Carnival indeed full of humorous passages and parodies, rare in “serious music”. “The Pianists” delights and amuses amateur and profesionals and one jibe he aims at himself (“The Fossils”). In his lifetime, he offered to play Carnival for a few semi-private groups but did not want it published. Only a year after his death did it become available to the general public. The reception was rapturous.
One of the movements, “The Swan”, is widely performed today by cellists accompanied by piano. Various other combinations of instruments bring out its pathos, its beauty. The swan’s symbolism varies from country to country. In Britain for centuries the swan denoted class, wealth and status. In Finland, the whoopoing swan is the national bird and in mythology it is the divine messenger between the living and the dead.
One member of the audience at a cello and piano performance of The Swan in London observed that by the end of the performance everyone was in tears, even the cellist. In this version, cellist Yo-Yo Ma seems to be fighting back tears.
Saint-Saens was born in 1835 and lived through a golden age of changing musical styles, from Baroque and Classical to Romantic and modernist experimental. He devoured them all. As a child he was considered more gifted than Mozart. And as he developed, he became something of a modernist himself, recommending Schumann and Wagner to a then-reluctant public. He was accepted at the Paris Conservatory at the tender age of 13.
In his schooling, Saint-Saëns excelled in many subjects besides his acknowledged prowess in music. He was adept in French literature, Latin and Greek, divinity studies, and mathematics. His interests spanned philosophy and archaeology. He remained a talented amateur astronomer throughout his life, sometimes spending his performance fees on telescopes.
Former literary editor of the London Guardian Stephen Moss, now a writer on music and musicians, notes that as he grew older, he fell out of sync with the musical mood. “He loathed what he saw as the formless impressionism of Debussy,” Moss writes. “And though he was not, as is often asserted, part of the mob that assailed ‘The Rite of Spring’, he did believe Stravinsky was deranged.” No doubt Stravinsky was equally uncharitable to him.
The Saint-Saens oeuvre is nothing less than monumental. He liked to say that music poured from him as apples fall from trees. From 1861 to 1865 he was a professor at the Paris Ecole Niedermeyer. Among his pupils were Gabriel Fauré and composer-conductor André Messager. Over his long lifetime he wrote a dozen operas, five symphonies, five piano concertos, three violin concertos, two concertos for cello, plus various choral and chamber music pieces. He wrote for the theatre and for early cinema. Actress Sarah Bernhardt commissioned him to write a score for Racine’s five-act Greek tragedy “Andromaque”. Violinists’ favorite is his glittering “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso”.
A concert hall standard is his Symphony No.3, popularly known as his Organ Symphony, for the thrilling blast of the organ in the third and final movement. This video of the Berlin Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta is hard to beat.
He died just over a hundred years ago and was celebrated at the English Proms series for his voluminous array of compositions and his sense of beauty that affects performers as well as audiences.
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