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8.573138 - SAINT-SAËNS, C.: Symphonies, Vol. 1- Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 / Phaéton (Malmö Symphony, Soustrot)
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Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 • Phaéton


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.

France, like other countries in Europe, suffered civil disturbances in 1848, when Louis-Philippe was forced to abdicate and the Second Republic was briefly established, to be overturned in 1852 when Louis Napoléon was declared Emperor as Napoléon III. The Symphony in E flat major, Op. 2 by Saint-Saëns dates precisely from this period. It received its first performance in Paris in 1853 through a subterfuge. The Société Ste Cécile, to whom the work was offered for performance, would have been unlikely to look with any favour on the work of a seventeen-year-old. To avoid rejection Saint-Saëns, with the connivance of the conductor François Seghers, submitted the symphony anonymously, as from a German composer, allowing various conjectures to arise as to the identity of the composer, which was finally revealed. In the following years only single movements had occasional performance, until a revival of interest as the fiftieth anniversary of the start of his musical career was celebrated in 1896. The symphony is, to some extent, derivative, as Saint-Saëns himself suggested, and also reflects something of the disturbed state of French society until the establishment of the Second Empire brought a measure of peace to the country.

The short Adagio introduction to the first movement opens with a motif that is to form the basis of the principal theme of the following Allegro, introduced by the first violins and then taken up by the clarinet. The C major second theme of this sonata-form movement is entrusted largely to the wind instruments. The return of the opening Adagio marks the start of a central development, and the Adagio makes a further emphatic return before the final recapitulation. The principal theme of the G major Marche-Scherzo is heard first from the oboe, followed by the flute and then the first violins, with clarinet and bassoon. A transition, molto staccato in the strings, leads to a second theme for two flutes. The thematic material is developed, with martial elements introduced, before diminishing to tiptoe to a conclusion. Muted and tremolo strings start the E major slow movement, with its slowly unwinding main theme announced by the clarinet, to be joined by the first violin, and then passed, with harp accompaniment, to flute and cor anglais. The orchestral forces are considerably increased for the finale, scored for piccolo, pairs of flutes, oboes and clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, two horns in F, two valve horns in E flat, pairs of E flat trumpets and B flat cornets, two saxhorns, three trombones, four timpani, cymbals, four harps and strings. The orchestra is deployed with some delicacy at first, swelling in importance to introduce a Wagnerian march. Other thematic material is introduced, leading to a fugal section and a triumphant conclusion.

Saint-Saëns wrote his Symphony No. 2 in A minor, Op, 55, in the summer of 1859 and dedicated it to Jules Pasdeloup, Directeur des Concerts Populaires, although he was later typically to remark that Pasdeloup was possessed of ‘une incapacité immense’. Pasdeloup, whose earlier Société des jeunes artistes du conservatoire had eclipsed the Société Ste Cécile, seemingly conducted the first performance of the new symphony at the Salle Pleyel in March 1862, although a much later possible date has been proposed as that of the first complete performance of the whole symphony. More modestly scored than the Symphony in E flat, without harps, trombones or so many timpani, the new work defied convention in other ways, not least by basing the first movement on a fugue. This is introduced by descending and ascending thirds, including a passage for solo violin, figuration that provides a fugal subject announced by the first violins, answered by the seconds and followed by the entry of bassoons and cellos, and then the woodwind, in a form with which Saint-Saëns, as an organist, must long have been familiar. The E major second movement, an Adagio, is delicately scored for muted strings and woodwind, the latter including a cor anglais. Elements of the Adagio return, transformed, in the A minor Scherzo. The symphony ends with a Tarantella, which stutters to an apparent conclusion, to be followed by an Andantino passage for solo strings and a rapid ending to a movement that has contained cyclic reminiscences of earlier thematic elements.

Saint-Saëns wrote his symphonic poem Phaéton in 1873. Dedicated to Mme Berthe Pochet (née de Tiran), it was first performed in Paris in December 1873, with a second performance in the same month, earning grudging disapproval from some as mere programme music. It came at a difficult time in France, after the defeat of Napoleon III’s forces at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War and the establishment of the Third Republic. Scored for a large orchestra, including four timpani and two harps, the work skilfully echoes the classical legend given at the head of the score: ‘Phaethon has managed to drive in the sky the chariot of the Sun, his father. But his unskilled hands startle the horses. The burning chariot, thrown off its course, comes near the terrestrial regions. The whole universe is going to perish in flames, until Jupiter strikes the foolish Phaethon with his thunderbolt.’ The work captures the rhythm of the horses galloping through the sky and then bolting, as Phaethon loses control. It reaches a climax when Jupiter strikes Phaethon with his thunderbolt, and ends with a passage that perhaps suggests the mourning of Phaethon’s sisters, eventually turned into poplars, and the re-establishment of the world, saved from destruction.

Keith Anderson

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