About this Recording
8.572454 - SAINT-SAENS, C.: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (Fine Arts Quartet)
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Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
String Quartets


Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, Camille Saint-Saëns showed remarkable precocity as a child, first exhibited 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.

It was not until very late in his life that Saint-Saëns at last approached the challenging form of the string quartet. He wrote his String Quartet in E minor, Op. 112, at the age of 64, in 1899, dedicating it to Eugène Ysaÿe who, in expressing his gratitude for the honour, went on to hope that this would be only the first of a series of such compositions. The work had its first public performance in December at a Colonne concert. Vincent d’Indy, in his Cours de composition musicale was to use the quartet as a supposed example of cyclic form, something that, he went on to say, was much better handled by César Franck. The first movement starts with muted sustained notes before the first violin states the principal theme. The passage ends with sustained notes and mutes are removed for a Più allegro section, in which the first violin continues to predominate. Other material is introduced, before the final abbreviated return of the principal theme, followed by music derived from the Più allegro. In the second movement, Molto allegro quasi presto, the first violin offers a simple tune, at first syncopated and then in triplets, accompanied by the plucked notes of the other instruments. The Trio section of the movement modulates to E major, proposing a fugue, started by the cello and followed by the other instruments entering in ascending order. The Scherzo returns, leading the way to another short fugal section, marked poco meno, before the main theme brings the movement to an end. The A major slow movement gives prominence to the first violin, reflecting the playing of Ysaÿe. There is further scope for virtuosity in the writing for the first violin in the final movement, with its two contrasting thematic groups and closing Molto allegro.

The second of the two string quartets by Saint-Saëns, the String Quartet in G major, Op. 153, seems to have been completed in 1918. It was published the following year, with a dedication to Jacques Durand, who had followed his father Auguste as Saint-Saëns’s publisher. The period was a difficult one. The war was coming to an end, but only after years of great suffering and loss on both sides. Saint-Saëns remained troubled too by the possible aftermath and by anxieties stemming from the rise of socialism in France. In his quartet he returns at first to a musical language very much in the spirit of Mozart. He described the first movement as ‘Youth’ and the second as the saddest thing of all, the loss of it. The first movement opens with a rhythmic figure that remains of importance, leading here to a theme for which the cello provides an occasional accompaniment with the same figure. As the movement continues, there are shifts of key and further thematic material. Finally there is a return to the opening theme, forming the substance of the closing section. The slow movement, which Saint-Saëns, with his usual dry humour, described as deadly dull, as an Adagio should be, opens in C minor and marked Molto adagio, but this first section is soon followed by an Andantino passage, cantabile and in D flat major. The first tempo returns, with a further modulation, and the movement continues with an alternation of Adagio and Andantino. Eventually a first violin cadenza leads to a return to the Adagio, in C minor, followed by a C major Andantino, capped by a closing four bars of Adagio. The third movement starts with an Interlude in which a viola melody, marked Andantino, is accompanied by second violin and cello. The plucked open strings of the first violin, echoed by the plucked open strings of the viola and cello, introduce the Finale proper, Allegretto con moto, its principal melody based on a series of rising fifths. The movement includes an animato fugal section, built on an extended semi-quaver subject, before the return of the Allegretto. Both thematic elements are remembered in the concluding section of the movement, the final three chords preceded by the open fifths of plucked open strings.

Keith Anderson

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