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8.557285 - SAINT-SAENS: Organ Music
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Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Organ Music

For some 75 years, from childhood until the last year of his life, Camille Saint-Saëns enjoyed international renown as a piano and organ virtuoso. He was also famous as a prolific composer. As an organ virtuoso, Saint-Saëns toured extensively in Europe throughout his career, including, in 1906 and 1915, appearances in the United States. He also held the prestigious position of organist at the Madeleine in Paris for nearly twenty years. While a relatively small number of his compositions have kept their place in the concert hall and the recording catalogue, the greater part of his output remains relatively unknown. This undeserved neglect extends to his 22 published organ works, consisting of pieces for solo organ, organ and orchestra, transcriptions and chamber music. Throughout his long life the organ remained not only a central aspect of his musical personality, but of his activity as a composer, and some of his first and last works were for the instrument.

Saint-Saëns was born in Paris on 9th October 1835. His father, a clerk in the Ministry of the Interior, died of consumption three months after his birth leaving him to be reared by his mother and his great-aunt, Charlotte Masson. His musical aunt introduced him to the piano and began giving him his early musical training when he was two and a half, and a year later he wrote his first piano piece. In 1846, at the age of ten, he made his formal début as a pianist at the Salle Pleyel, playing a Mozart and a Beethoven concerto. In the winter of 1847 he received his first lessons on the organ from Alexandre- Pierre Boëly (1785-1858), organist of Saint-Germainl’Auxerrois and remembered as the ‘French Bach’. In October 1848 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, enrolling in the organ class of François Benoist (1794- 1878), whose pupils included Gounod, Franck, Bizet and Alkan. In 1851, after only three years of study, Saint- Saëns won a Premier Prix in organ. His professional career as an organist began in 1853 when he was appointed to the church of Saint Severin in Paris. A few months later he accepted a similar appointed at the Church of Saint-Merry, where, on 3rd December 1857, at the dedication of the newly rebuilt organ, he gave the first performance of his first published organ work, the Fantasie in E flat. Four days later, on 7th December, Saint-Saëns was appointed to the Madeleine, where he was to remain until 1877.

During his years at the Madeleine Saint-Saëns was active as an organ recitalist and became well-known for his improvisations on the church’s magnificent Cavaillé- Coll organ. He was to become one of Cavaillé-Coll’s favourite organists, and participated in the dedication of many of the organ-builder’s largest and most famous instruments, including Saint Sulpice, Notre-Dame, La Trinité and the Trocadéro. In September 1878 he gave the first performance of his friend Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on ‘Ad nos ad salutarem undam’ at the dedication of the Trocadéro organ..

The last half of his life was replete with activity and honours. In April of 1877 Saint-Saëns resigned his post at the Madeleine, after disagreements with the clergy. His increased activity as a composer and touring virtuoso, however, probably hastened the decision. With the exception of an honorary appointment as organist at Saint Severin in 1897, he never again held an organ position. He remained active, however, as an organ recitalist and continued to compose for the instrument for the remainder of his life, publishing his last organ work in 1919, two years before his death. 1881 saw his election to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and 1886 the première of his so-called Organ Symphony, which was to become one of his most famous works. His opera Samson et Dalila was first staged in Paris in 1892, and in 1893 he received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University in England. 1906 found him touring America where he returned in 1915 to appear at the San Francisco World’s Fair. A fervent patriot during the years of the Great War, he maintained his concert activity and wrote several patriotic works. One of his last compositions, Cyprès et Lauriers for organ and orchestra, was written in 1919 to celebrate the Allied victory.

After a brief illness Saint-Saëns died at the Hôtel de l’Oasis, in his beloved Algiers, on 16th December 1921. At his burial in Montparnasse cemetery on 24th December the organist Charles-Marie Widor, as perpetual secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, spoke in the name of the Institut de France:

“His example and his work remain. The man is no more, but his spirit hovers over the world, alive and glorious, and will continue to hover as long as we have instruments and orchestras.”

The Prelude and Fugue in E flat, Op. 99, No. 3 is from a group of three preludes and fugues written in the summer of 1894. Each is dedicated to an organist friend, and the third is inscribed to Eugène Gigout, organist of Saint-Augustin, head of the organ class at the Paris Conservatoire, and a life-long friend of the composer. The prelude is a toccata which features rapid, brokenchord figuration heard over a slow-moving theme in the pedals. The fugue presents a magisterial subject in 3/4 time, which is worked out with logic and clarity, culminating in a grand climax.

In August 1866 Saint-Saëns took a holiday in Brittany with a number of friends, including his former pupil Gabriel Fauré. During the trip he composed the Trois Rhapsodies Bretons, Op. 7, and dedicated them to Fauré. All three works are loosely based on Breton melodies, which are often subjected to restatement and variation rather than conventional development. In the third three themes are heard, a melancholy opening theme in A minor, a pastorale, and finally, a rather more spirited tune which first appears in the pedals and then builds to a statement on Full Organ. The opening theme returns and the piece closes with the pastorale played on the oboe and clarinet stops.

While confined to bed with bronchitis in December 1916, Saint-Saëns began work on the Sept Improvisations, Op. 150, his first organ composition since 1906. They were completed in February 1917 and dedicated to Eugène Gigout. The set is notable for the use of Gregorian chant, the church modes, and an expanded harmonic vocabulary. This last is immediately apparent in the first, marked Molto lento, which uses a whole-tone scale in the opening theme heard in the pedals. The second, Feria Pentecostes, based upon the first hymn at Lauds on the Feast of Pentecost, begins softly and builds to an impressive climax. The third, Poco adagio, is a wistful meditation featuring a chorale played on the Voix Humaine stop, and the fourth, Allegretto, is a playful movement recalling the scherzi of Mendelssohn. The fifth, Pro Martyribus, returns to the use of Gregorian chant, three phrases from the Offertory for the Common of a Martyr not a Bishop, as does the sixth, Pro Defunctis, an imposing funeral-like dirge which uses the first phrase of the Offertory from the Requiem Mass. The set concludes with a jaunty movement reminiscent of an old French Noël marked Allegro giocoso, for Full Organ. The composer gave the première of the work at the Théâtre des Nations in Marseille on 25th March 1917.

The Société Nationale de Musique was formed in 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War in order to promote and perform music of French composers. Saint- Saëns was the first vice-president, and the conductor Émile Bernard was also involved with the organization. Throughout his career Saint-Saëns continually transcribed and arranged his own and other composers’ works for a variety of media, including the organ. It seems natural then that Bernard should choose to arrange the Adagio for organ from the Organ Symphony, first given in May 1886 and dedicated to Franz Liszt. Bernard’s faithful transcription of the Adagio results in a work that sounds like an original organ composition, using all the colour present in the original orchestral score.

Saint-Saëns’ first published organ work, the Fantaisie in E flat, has proved to be his most popular. The composer first played it in December 1857 at the inauguration of the newly rebuilt organ of Saint-Merry in Paris, where he had been appointed organist in 1853. It is dedicated to Georges Schmidt, then organist of Saint Sulpice. In two parts, the Con moto features an ingenious alternation of chords between two manuals while the Allegro di molto e con fuoco is a spirited march, which introduces a fugato section in the middle and ends with a grand, virtuosic coda.

Robert Delcamp


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