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8.223612 - SAINT-SAENS: Javotte / Parysatis
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Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Javotte • Parysatis: Airs du ballet


Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, Camille Saint-Saëns showed remarkable precocity as a child, first shown in piano lessons from his great-aunt at the age of two and a half. He coupled with his musical interests a wide general enthusiasm for learning of all kinds, literary and scientific, and was, as a composer, to produce music of many genres during a career that spanned the second half of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, starting in a period that knew Mendelssohn and continuing beyond the death of Debussy.


Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1835, the son of a clerk in the government service, who died shortly after the birth of his only child. He was cared for by his mother and her adoptive aunt, whose husband had recently died. It was she who gave him his first piano lessons. Thereafter he studied with Camille Stamaty, a pupil of Kalkbrenner and of Mendelssohn, and appeared in public concerts as a child, having, by the age of ten, memorised all the Beethoven piano sonatas. At the same time he showed an aptitude for and interest in a great variety of subjects. In 1848 he entered the Conservatoire, studying the organ with Benoist and composition with Halévy, and continuing to show his gifts as a pianist, organist and composer. His intellectual curiosity led him to espouse the cause of contemporary music, as well as the revival of music by earlier composers.


A member of the circle of Pauline Viardot, a valued friend, Saint-Saëns taught briefly at the newly established Ecole Niedermeyer, where his pupils included Gabriel Fauré, a musician with whom he established a close relationship. In 1871, after the disasters of the Franco-Prussian war, he was instrumental in the foundation of the Société Nationale de Musique, with its aim of propagating French music, Ars Gallica. His great-aunt died in 1872 and three years later he contracted a marriage that came to an abrupt end six years later, after the earlier death of his two sons. The death of his mother in 1888 left him alone and he spent much of his later life travelling, accompanied by his dog and a loyal manservant. By the time of his own death in Algeria in 1921 he had to some extent outlived his reputation at home. In France this was the age now of Les Six. Debussy was dead, Fauré was near the end of his life, and Stravinsky had already, some eight years earlier, scandalized Paris with his Rite of Spring. Saint-Saëns continued to compose, although Ravel unkindly suggested that in war-time he might have been more productively employed. Abroad he retained something more of his earlier fame. Once known as the French Mendelssohn, he had written music that appealed to audiences in much the same way as his predecessor’s, for its clarity of texture and its attractive powers of invention, calculated to delight rather than to shock.


1896 brought the death of Ambroise Thomas, director of the Conservatoire, and the opportunity for Fauré to join the teaching staff. Saint-Saëns was finding interest in a ballet scenario sent him by J.L.Croze, who worked at the Folies-Marigny. That theatre failed, however, and when attempts to interest La Monnaie in Brussels in the project came to nothing, the new ballet, Javotte, was eagerly taken on by Lyon, where it was staged. It was mounted at the Opéra in Paris in 1909.


The play Parysatis, by Jane Dieulafoy, was first staged in the Arena at Béziers in August 1902, with incidental music by Saint-Saëns. Jane Henriette Magre Dieulafoy shared with her husband, Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy, archaeological investigations in Persia in 1881-82 and 1884-86, expeditions that led to significant additions to the collections of the Louvre. In addition to the publications of her husband, Jane Dieulafoy wrote a number of books, including illustrated reports of the excavations and discoveries of the French expeditions. In France she chose to dress as a man, and after the performance of her orientalist play Parysatis, appeared on stage, wearing her short jacket and breeches, with Saint-Saëns, to acknowledge the very considerable applause of the audience, as Fauré reported.


The name of the heroine Parysatis is taken from the Persian word for swallow. The historical Parysatis was the half-sister and wife of Darius II. She was the mother of Cyrus, who rebelled against his brother Artaxerxes, and the play opens with the death of Cyrus, and the further plotting of Parysatis in the dynastic struggles of the time. The music that Saint-Saëns provided for the work was written principally during a visit to Egypt in 1901, when he stayed in an exotic villa on an island in the Nile, thanks to the brother of the Khedive, Mohammed Ali Pasha. The full ballet music from Act II of Parysatis includes Le rossignol et la rose (The Nightingale and the Rose), a wordless song suggested by a Greek singer he had heard in Alexandria. The present recording includes only the instrumental introduction and three ballet scenes, as exotic in mood as much of the rest of the score.



Javotte: Synopsis


[1] The first scene, La fête au village, opens in the village square. The place is decorated with greenery. To the left is a tree, with a bench beneath it, and a platform for the musicians. In the background is a church. As the curtain rises the dance is in full swing, the stage filled with couples. Jean, who is in love with Javotte, is sitting apart, on the bench, refusing the invitations of girls to join them in the dance, as he waits sadly for the appearance of his beloved. The girls give up, laughing at him, as he moves away. The dance continues. [2] The scene is interrupted by the arrival of Javotte’s angry father and mother. They approach the constable, dressed for the holiday, and explain to him that their daughter has escaped from the house and come, presumably, to join her lover. They ask everyone if they have seen her, but they all deny it. They are about to continue their search, but the constable offers his services to catch the bird and put her back in the cage. The three of them go out. The dance resumes, and the couples laugh again at Jean, who has returned, still sighing for his beloved. [3] Javotte now appears, running, out of breath, happy and laughing, and throws herself into Jean’s arms. [4] They dance together, [5] and this is followed by a Bourrée, danced by the whole company, joined by Javotte and Jean.


[6] The church bell rings and the dance stops. The girls hurry to attend Vespers, and the others follow, leaving Jean and Javotte alone, with a small group of drinkers sitting at a table in the background. Javotte is thoughtful, and Jean questions her and invites her to kiss him, now they are alone. She refuses, admitting her fault in disobeying her parents, and bursts into tears, consoled by Jean. She thinks her friends are better than she is, since they have gone into the church.


[7] Javotte’s parents return, without the constable. When her father sees her, he is about to strike her, but she takes refuge with her mother, admitting her fault, begging her pardon and ready to return home. 8 They go off together, leaving Jean more than ever the butt of the mockery of the young people, who now re-appear.


[9] The second scene, A la maison, is set in the house of Javotte’s parents. It is a typical rustic interior, with a lamp, a clock, a dresser. Near the table there is a spinning-wheel. Through the large window at the back the lights of the village festival can be seen. Javotte’s parents are there, and her mother sets her daughter to work with the washing-up and sweeping, and then, when she has finished, spinning. Her parents set out for the village celebration, her father rejuvenated at the thought of dancing and drinking. She is to be punished by staying at home to look after the house and do the housework. They are about to go, when her father turns back to close the window and lock the door. [10] Javotte starts her work, but drops one of the dishes, which breaks. She deserves her punishment, and yet dancing is such a pleasure and Jean loves her, and is so handsome. As she muses on this, she takes from her sash the flowers that Jean had given her and kisses them, sighing. She sketches out a few dance steps, breaks off in remorse, [11] and returns to work at the spinning-wheel. The thread tangles and then breaks, and she casts her work aside, turning instead to knitting, but after a few stitches she has had enough of that, throws it down, and starts to dance again. After dancing, she takes up the broom. There is a knock at the door, but she cannot open it. There is more knocking, now at the window, [12] which she runs to open. It is Jean, who has been waiting for Javotte’s parents to go. He jumps in through the window, and kisses Javotte, who takes him by the hand, like an honoured guest, and shows him the room with a lamp, a clock and a dresser. [13] Then, with leaps of joy that bring some disorder to the room, she dances with her lover. They agree to run away together, leaving through the window.


[14] Javotte’s parents soon return, her father slightly tipsy, and her mother somewhat dishevelled. The day is drawing to a close. They see the room in disorder and the window open, and understand what has happened. At this moment there is a knock at the door and the constable appears, assuring them that he has found their daughter and her lover. The parents prepare themselves for their daughter’s return, only to meet two strangers. They think that they are being made fun of, and a quarrel follows, as the scene comes to an end in general confusion.


[15] The third scene, La reine du bal, is again set in the village. It is night and the dancing is lit by lanterns. All the villagers are there, [16] and the leading people come together to choose the festival queen. They decide to choose the best dancer from among the girls. [17] The first competitor comes forward to dance, but the judges are not quite satisfied. [18] A second dances, with the same result, [19] while after the third, the judges disagree. [20] A fourth girl dances, but the judges cannot make up their minds. [21] At this point Javotte and Jean appear, [22] and Javotte dances for the judges, outshining her rivals, [23] and is proclaimed queen. [24] The four unsuccessful competitors console themselves by dancing with their partners.


[25] Javotte’s parents appear, with the constable, who demands Jean and Javotte, in the name of the law. [26] They are shielded by the other young people, who say they do not know where the fugitives are. Eventually, though, they are found. Javotte’s father wants to kill them, only restrained by the constable, who rebukes the young couple. Jean pleads that they are in love and ready to marry. Javotte’s parents discuss the matter together, [27] and then agree to the match. [28] Javotte is borne in a triumphant procession as queen of the festival, Jean with her. [29] Then they dance together, [30] and there is a dance for the girls, [31] and a final dance in which all join.


Keith Anderson

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