About this Recording
8.573140 - SAINT-SAËNS, C.: Symphonies, Vol. 3 - Symphony in F Major, "Urbs Romana" / La Jeunesse d'Hercule / Danse Macabre (Malmö Symphony, Soustrot)
English  French 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Symphony in F major ‘Urbs Roma’ • La jeunesse d’Hercule, Op. 50 • Danse macabre, Op. 40


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, encouraging his natural musical precocity. 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 wrote his Symphony in F major in 1856, entering it in a competition organized by the Bordeaux Société Ste Cécile under the title Urbs Roma, a choice that seems to have no direct bearing on the content of the work, but complied with the competition rules of anonymous submission. It is possible that Saint-Saëns had entered the Bordeaux competition in preceding years, but in January 1857 the new symphony won and a performance was given in Paris under the aegis of the Société des jeunes artistes du conservatoire, established by Pasdeloup. The symphony was played in Bordeaux under the baton of the composer. The work remained unpublished in the composer’s lifetime, eclipsed by the Symphony No. 2 in A minor, a work by which Saint-Saëns set greater store.

The first movement starts with a slow introduction, horn fanfares interrupted by chords from the whole orchestra, a beginning that makes clear the serious intention of the composer. This leads to an Allegro in 6/4, introducing a sonata-form movement, interrupted momentarily by the return of the opening Largo, which makes its final appearance before the closing section of the movement. The Scherzo that follows is in A minor, with a contrasting A major middle section. The third movement, marked Moderato, assai serioso, is a sombre funeral march, its mood alleviated by occasional shafts of light.

The symphony ends with a theme and variations, a treatment of the form that has no place for triumphant summary and resolution. The theme is entrusted first to the strings and a rhythmic variation follows, as wind instruments join in. The dotted rhythm fourth variation, L’istesso tempo, is in the minor and the brief fifth variation is in the unusual metre of 5/4 before a final variation with rapid decorative figuration and the last appearance of the theme, bringing the symphony to a conclusion.

The fourth and last of the symphonic poems by Saint-Saëns, La Jeunesse d’Hercule (The Youth of Hercules), was first performed under Edouard Colonne in January 1877 and dedicated to Henri Duparc. As with two of the earlier symphonic poems, the score includes a preliminary summary of the legend that lies behind the work: ‘The story tells how, at his birth, Hercules saw before him two courses of action, that of pleasure and that of virtue. Indifferent to the seduction of Nymphs and Bacchantes, he chose the path of struggle and combat, at the end of which he had a glimpse, through the flames of the funeral pyre, of the reward of immortality.’ The work offers a study of the conflict between pleasure and duty. It is scored for a large orchestra of piccolo, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, a little B flat bugle, two cornets, two trumpets three trombones and tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, harps and strings. The opening Andante sostenuto is introduced by muted violins, leading to an Allegro moderato, with the principal theme given first to unmuted strings, which introduce a secondary theme. A change of key and mood is signalled by flute and clarinet in a 9/8 Andantino, music for nymphs and Bacchantes, leading to an Allegro, its melody heard first from the flute. After a dramatic development there is a return to the original Andante sostenuto. A climax is reached, interrupted by the return of the second theme of seduction, heard from woodwind and harp, but it is virtue that is finally to triumph.

Among the most popular of the orchestral works of Saint-Saëns is the Danse macabre, Op. 40, the third of his symphonic poems. The work is scored for a large orchestra that, unusually, includes a xylophone, used to suggest the rattle of dry bones. This dance of death involves, too, a solo violin, the violin of Death that leads the dance, the top string tuned down to E flat, with the A string giving the interval of a tritone, traditionally known as ‘the devil in music’. The work draws its programme from a poem by Henri Cazalis, Egalité-Fraternité, that Saint-Saëns had set as a song in 1872. The symphonic poem was completed in 1874 and first performed under Edouard Colonne in January 1875, and formed a popular item in concerts that Saint-Saëns subsequently gave of his own compositions. The Hallowe’en dance is led by Death, its progress echoed in the poem by Cazalis:

Zig and zig and zag, Death in time
Knocking a tomb with his heel,
Death at midnight plays a dance tune,
Zig and zig and zag on his violin.

The winter wind blows and the night is dark,
Groans come from the lime-trees:
The white skeletons go through the darkness,
Running and leaping under their great shrouds.

Zig and zig and zag, each jigs about
And the knocking of their bones is heard.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But psst! Suddenly they leave off the dance,
They push, they flee, the cock has crowed.

Keith Anderson

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