About this Recording
8.570964 - SAINT-SAENS, C.: Music for Wind Instruments - Sonatas / Romance / Tarantelle (Canada's National Arts Centre Wind Quintet, Lemelin)
English  French 

Camile Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Music for Wind Instruments

 

Camille Saint-Saëns was one of the most talented musicians of his day, a prolific composer, champion of French music, and one of the greatest pianists and organists of the nineteenth century. He was also a respected writer and scholar, and a gifted amateur mathematician and astronomer. At the beginning of his career in the 1850s he was celebrated as the brightest young French composer of his day, winning big composition prizes and attracting the support of some of the most famous composers of the time, Rossini and Berlioz. Despite all this achievement, Saint-Saëns was thought of as unemotional and conservative by some of his contemporaries. By the end of his life in the early 1900s, many of the leading French composers of the day such as Debussy saw him as old-fashioned and reactionary. His most well-known pieces such as the Carnival of the Animals and the Organ Symphony were viewed as being populist and inconsequential, playing to the crowd rather than being serious art. This is not the only paradox in Saint-Saëns’ music. He worshipped composers from the German-speaking world, particularly Bach and Mozart, and was one of the first musicians to introduce Wagner to French audiences. Yet at the height of his career in the 1870s and 1880s he was tireless in his promotion of new French music, and during the First World War he argued that all performances of German music in Paris should be banned. His personal life was also a strange contradiction. One of his greatest disciples was Gabriel Fauré (he of the famous Requiem setting), and Fauré’s wife and children would have seen him as a generous uncle. His own family life was a tragedy, and he abandoned his own wife after just three years, never speaking to her again. Saint-Saëns’ own take on these conflicts and contradictions was simple, “I am an eclectic spirit. It may be a defect but I cannot change it: one cannot make over one’s personality.”

The five pieces on this recording cover much of Saint-Saëns’ fascinating and eclectic life. They represent some of his most beautiful music for small ‘chamber’ groups, a form of music which Saint-Saëns often composed for throughout his long life, and represent some of his most important works in the genre.

The earliest, the Tarantella for Flute, Clarinet and Piano, originally written for flute, clarinet and a string orchestra, is from 1857. The 22-year-old Saint-Saëns was the darling of the Parisian musical scene, he had been appointed as organist of the Madeleine Church, one of the most prestigious musical posts in France, and had recently returned from an inspirational trip to Italy (the word ‘Tarantella’ originates from a fast and frenzied southern Italian dance which mimicked the effects of being bitten by a tarantula spider). The music is quick, virtuosic and full of Saint-Saëns’ trademark flourishes, very much the music of a confident young man.

The Romance for Horn and Piano and Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet and Piano were written in 1885-86, at the same time that he wrote his famous Organ Symphony and Carnival of the Animals. Saint-Saëns was at the height of his powers, and was enjoying his happiest period in over twenty years. His disastrous marriage had recently finished, he was a hero in both Paris and London following a number of successful trips to England. The French government had made him an Officier of the Légion d’Honneur, and his last two operas had been a huge success both musically and financially. He was also President of the Société Nationale de Musique, the most important musical society in France, dedicated to promoting French music and composers. Both the Romance and the Caprice are full of his characteristic bravado of the time. The Romance uses the horn’s naturally noble sound to convey some of Saint-Saëns’ most assured and beautiful music. The Caprice begins in similarly majestic fashion with a series of flourishes on the piano and fanfares on the woodwind instruments. It then settles into a series of haunting melodies punctuated by virtuosic passages and imposing statements, followed by a final, brief fanfare at the finish. There are other tell-tale Saint-Saëns trademarks in both these works. Usually in music for piano and solo instruments, the piano plays second fiddle, providing the foundations on which the other parts build their melodies, but Saint-Saëns the pianist is to the fore throughout the Romance and Caprice, with some beautiful, characteristic and technically challenging parts for the piano.

The Sonatas for Clarinet, Oboe and Bassoon, all with piano, were written in 1921, the last year of the Saint-Saëns’ life, and rank amongst his most important music. His later years were perhaps less successful than earlier periods in his life. He continued to enjoy success as a performer, particularly in England, and now the United States, where he enjoyed a hero’s welcome on a tour in 1915, but his music had fallen out of fashion in his native France. Composers there, especially Debussy and Ravel, were developing a new, modern, musical language. In 1913, only a few years before, Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring had caused a mini-riot in the Paris theatre where it was first performed because of its modern harmonies and rhythms. In Vienna, the home of Mozart, some composers had made a total break with the traditional music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and created completely new rules for composition. The First World War also cast a gloomy shadow over composers of the day and economic and political uncertainty was rife. Gone were the romantic last few decades of the nineteenth century when Europe enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity.

Saint-Saëns’ reaction to this environment was to retreat into an austere, and more obviously French style of music, something that is clearly evident in these last three sonatas. The romantic flourishes and fanfares are no more. They are replaced with clean lines for the solo instrument and a lighter accompaniment on the piano. Saint-Saëns is perhaps less ready to show off his prodigious talent and is more concerned with creating something beautiful, calm and simple.

The best example of this calmness and austerity is the way Saint-Saëns structures the Sonata for Bassoon, the last of the three pieces. Sonatas usually follow a tried and trusted pattern of three movements, a confident, rousing first movement, a slow middle movement and a fast finale. Saint-Saëns turns this model on its head for this piece, probably one of the last two compositions he ever wrote. A fast first movement is followed by an even faster second, and then the final movement is marked Molto Adagio. Maybe Saint-Saëns wrote this last movement as a swan song, a farewell from a composer who was now seen as yesterday’s man. If so, then perhaps the Saint-Saëns of the 1880s, celebrated as the greatest of all French musicians, could not resist one last fanfare, and this sombre goodbye is given a final, brief flourish.


Matthew Swann, 2009


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