About this Recording
8.573745 - SAINT-SAËNS, C.: Symphonic Poems (Lille National Orchestra, Märkl)
English  French 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Symphonic Poems

 

Born in Paris in 1835, Camille Saint-Saëns is one of the most extraordinary musical prodigies in the history of Western music. As a highly gifted pianist he made his concert debut at the age of ten, at which he announced to the audience that he would happily perform any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas as an encore. Having studied at the Paris Conservatoire, he followed a conventional path as a church organist, first at Saint-Merri, Paris, and later at La Madeleine, where he remained for some two decades and was praised for his improvisatory prowess. He was much in demand throughout Europe and the Americas, enjoying a successful career as a pianist and composer; however, the perception of Saint-Saëns the composer changed throughout his lifetime, which coincided with a period of revolutionary changes in the arts. During his youth, he championed such progressive figures as Wagner and Liszt, yet in his later years he revealed a much more conservative approach, rooted in tradition and reactionary to the innovative developments of Debussy, Stravinsky and others.

Saint-Saëns is often credited with introducing the symphonic poem into France but, as his biographer Stephen Studd has pointed out, some of Berlioz’s music falls into this category, as does Franck’s Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne of 1848. Phaéton, Op. 39 (1873), the second of his four symphonic poems (all of which feature on this disc), refers to the ancient Greek myth of Helios’ son who, to prove to his critics that he is truly descended from the sun god, asks his father’s permission to drive the sun chariot for one day. Helios reluctantly grants him permission, and Phaéton soon experiences the consequences of his youthful audacity: he is unable to hold the wild horses, carrying the sun too close to the earth. At last, Zeus intervenes, striking Phaéton with a lightning bolt, and causing him to crash down into the River Eridanos. His passing away is lamented by the nymphs of the river, who bury him. Saint-Saëns wastes no time in conveying the drama of this episode: following a short introduction, a rhythmic motif that clearly relates to the gallop of the horses is presented in the strings, after which trumpets burst in with a triumphant, courageous theme. For a while Phaéton seems to have everything under control, relishing his new-found responsibility, but as the strings become increasingly frantic, followed by menacing descending and ascending chromatic figures in the wind and brass, it is clear that all is not well, and after Zeus’ massive thunderbolt has hit, the music subsides into a mournful coda.

The Marche héroïque, Op. 34 (1870) is a symbol of resistance during the 1870–71 siege of Paris. Saint-Saëns dedicated it to the memory of his friend the painter Henri Regnault, killed on the battlefield on 19 January 1871. The defiant main theme is stated almost immediately in a brisk marching pace and briefly developed, rising to a climax. This subsides, giving way to a deeply nostalgic episode in the horns. An air of nobility predominates this central section, which in turn fades away to allow for the return of the heroic opening theme, leading to a short coda that hastens the pace to the brilliant ending.

Of all the ancient mythological figures, Saint-Saëns was especially drawn to the hero Hercules, depicting him not only in his opera Déjanire but also in two symphonic poems: Le Rouet d’Omphale (1871) and La Jeunesse d’Hercule (‘The Youth of Hercules’) (1877). The latter work (the composer’s fourth, final and longest symphonic poem), eschews a specific narrative in favour of the general opposition between pleasure and virtue, with Hercules opting for virtue. After a mysterious opening, the hero is introduced through two successive themes: the first is noble in character, the second more assertive and passionate. Pleasure then enters by way of playful woodwind figures (3 6:17), and the music soon develops into a wild bacchanal. At the climax, Hercules pronounces his rejection of such debauchery, cutting the dance off abruptly with a stern, unaccompanied melodic line (8:32). His initial two themes return and the ultimate triumph of virtue over pleasure is celebrated in a grand conclusion, replete with brass arpeggios.

Le Rouet d’Omphale (‘The Spinning Wheel of Omphale’), which was first given in a two-piano version in December 1871 and then in its orchestral guise a month later, paints Hercules in a somewhat less flattering light. Taking the eponymous poem by Hugo as its starting point, it concerns the punishment of Hercules for the ‘inadvertent murder’ of one of his guests. The goddess Hera condemns him to serve Queen Omphale of Lydia while disguised as a woman, and for three years he slaves wearing woman’s attire, spinning wool for her on a spinning wheel. The music begins with a characteristic imitation of the wheel by the violins, while a second, sombre bass theme in the trombones characterises the lamenting, groaning Hercules (4 3:16). The ensuing nimble version of this theme in the violins and woodwind tells of Omphale mocking the hero’s futile efforts (5:56). As a classicist, Saint-Saëns was well aware that there were no spinning wheels before the Middle Ages, explaining at the front of the score that the wheel is ‘merely a pretext, chosen simply from the point of view of rhythm and general atmosphere of the piece’, whose subject is ‘feminine seduction, the triumphant struggle of weakness against strength’.

As well as being a keen classicist, Saint-Saëns was fascinated by historical musical forms. In 1673 Marc- Antoine Charpentier (1636–1704) composed Le Malade imaginaire (‘The Hypochondriac’) after Molière’s play, and over two centuries later Saint-Saëns prepared a new revised edition of the work. He had always been interested in the dance forms of earlier times in particular (as is evident from works such as the Suite in D, Op. 49 for orchestra; or the Suite in D, Op. 16b for cello and orchestra [Naxos 8.573737]), and in 1892 he composed several dances in the old style for inclusion in Charpentier’s comédie-ballet. The two movements—Sarabande and Rigaudon—became so popular in their own right that they were issued separately as Op. 93, Nos. 1 and 2 respectively. The style employed is neither Baroque pastiche, nor the later, neo-Baroque style of Stravinsky, but something more akin to the orchestrations of Baroque works by the likes of Elgar and Stokowski.

Danse macabre, Op. 40 (1874) was originally conceived two years previously as an art song for voice and piano with a French text by the poet Henri Cazalis. Saint-Saëns then orchestrated the piece, replacing the vocal line with a solo violin, portraying the character of Death. The narrative of the piece is based on an ancient legend, where Death appears at midnight every year on Halloween, summoning the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle. His skeletons dance until dawn breaks, when they must hide away again until the following year. The piece opens with a harp playing a single note twelve times to represent the twelve strokes of midnight, followed by the solo violin’s opening tritone (A and E flat)—an interval so dissonant that it was known as the diabolus in musica (‘the Devil in music’) during the Medieval and Baroque eras. To achieve this on open strings, the E string of the solo violin must be tuned down a semitone to an E flat, in an example of scordatura tuning (Bach, one of Saint-Saëns’ great musical heroes, makes a similar demand of the cello in the fifth of his Cello Suites). The first, restless theme is heard on a solo flute, followed almost immediately by the second theme, a descending scale on the solo violin. The macabre element is emphasised further by the inclusion of the Dies irae Gregorian chant from the Latin Requiem Mass, but in a major rather than minor key, and in a playful manner rather than its usual solemn state (7 2:29). An energetic coda seems to lead the music to a conclusion, but is interrupted by a sudden pause: the cockerel’s crow, played by the oboe, signifies the breaking of dawn and the skeletons scurrying back into their graves.

Dominic Wells


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