About this Recording
8.573139 - SAINT-SAËNS, C.: Symphonies, Vol. 2 - Symphony No. 3 / Symphony in A Major / Le rouet d'Omphale (C.A. Landström, Malmö Symphony, Soustrot)
English  French 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 ‘Organ’ Symphony in A major • Le rouet d’Omphale, Op. 31


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.

Saint-Saëns was immensely gifted, both as a performer and as a composer. Liszt, who heard him improvise at the Madeleine, described him as the greatest living organist, while Hans von Bülow, who heard him read at sight at the piano the score of Wagner’s Siegfried, declared him the greatest musical mind of the time. As a pianist he performed principally his own music, avoiding the inevitable drudgery of the mere virtuoso he might so easily have become. The compositions of Saint-Saëns cover almost every possible genre of music. He wrote for the theatre and for the church, composed songs, orchestral music and chamber music, with works for the piano and for the organ. In style he deserved the comparison with Mendelssohn, sharing with that composer an ability in the handling of traditional forms and techniques and a gift for orchestration.

The third and last of the numbered symphonies that Saint-Saëns wrote, the so-called Organ Symphony, was completed in 1886, the year of the famous private jeu d’esprit, Le carnaval des animaux. The symphony was commissioned by the London Royal Philharmonic Society and first performed in London in May that year. It was later dedicated to the memory of Franz Liszt, who died in July 1886 in Bayreuth. The two movements of the work, scored for a large orchestra, include the normal structure of a four-movement symphony, with the use of cyclic thematic material, melodies or fragments of melodies that recur and provide over-all unity, a technique used by César Franck in his own symphony, which he had started in the same year.

The first movement, after a slow introduction, leads to a theme of Mendelssohnian character, followed by a gently lilting second subject. The movement contains a brief suggestion of the Dies irae. The organ starts a D flat slow movement, marked Poco adagio, at first with the strings. Here memories of the cyclic theme recur, as it undergoes its Lisztian metamorphosis into something still richer and stranger. The following section takes the place of a scherzo, opening with an energetic string melody, and proceeding to a Presto in C major and shifting to other keys, decorated, unusually in a symphony, by arpeggios and scales for the piano included in the scoring. The strongly marked string melody returns, Allegro moderato. The final part of the symphony is introduced by the organ, announcing an orchestral fugato. This last movement is of considerable variety, including a chorale, that makes an early appearance in an unusual form, polyphonic writing and a brief pastoral interlude, replaced by the massive climax of the whole symphony.

The Symphony in A is a very different work, written about 1850, when Saint-Saëns was about fifteen and perhaps not yet in Halévy’s composition class at the Conservatoire. This was not his first attempt at a form that enjoyed less official esteem among the French musical establishment of the time, but was the first such work that he completed. It is scored conventionally for pairs of woodwind instruments, trumpets, timpani and strings and starts with a slow introduction leading to a sonata-form Allegro vivace, with the exposition repeated, recurrent references to the last movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and sudden pauses as the exposition nears its close. The slow movement is a D major Larghetto, framing a more sombre D minor section, and the Scherzo and Trio are scored for solo flute and oboe with strings. The symphony ends with a rapid finale, again in sonata-form with a repeated exposition and concluding Presto.

Le rouet d’Omphale, dedicated to the composer Augusta Holmès, belongs to a group of symphonic poems written in the 1870s that includes Phaéton, the famous Danse macabre and La jeunesse d’Hercule. The legend of the Lydian queen Omphale involves the mythical hero Hercules, who was condemned by Apollo to serve her in the guise of a woman. In a preface to the score Saint-Saëns describes the subject as feminine seduction and the triumphant struggle of weakness against force, with the legend of Omphale’s wheel chosen for its suggested rhythm and the general atmosphere of the piece. The symphonic poem makes much of the sound of the spinning-wheel at which Omphale and her maids worked, with a passage, espressivo e pesante, introduced by cellos, basses, violas and bassoons, representing the groans of Hercules and a following contrasted passage, meno mosso and tranquillo, with oboe accompanied by clarinets suggesting Omphale’s mockery of the enslaved hero.

Keith Anderson

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