About this Recording
8.574033 - SAINT-SAËNS, C.: Ascanio: Ballet / Overtures to Stage Works (Malmö Symphony, Märkl)
English  French 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Ballet Music

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 traditions established by his French Baroque predecessors, as exemplified in works such as the Septet in E flat, the left hand Études, Op. 135 and the opera Ascanio.

With the exception of Samson et Dalila, which enjoys regular performances in the world’s major opera houses, Saint-Saëns’ operas (which total twelve) have all fallen into obscurity. First performed on 21 March 1890 at the Paris Opéra, Ascanio was revived there at Saint-Saëns’ death in 1921, but has never been staged since. The libretto is by Louis Gallet after the eponymous novel by Alexandre Dumas and the play Benvenuto Cellini by Paul Meurice, with the action set in Paris in 1539, recounting an incident during Cellini’s stay at the court of François I. To enhance its period character (and following the convention of French operatic tradition), Saint-Saëns introduced a substantial divertissement in the third act, an elaborate entertainment in the gardens of the palace of Fontainebleau, described by Reynaldo Hahn as a ‘supreme triumph of taste and elegance—the entire Renaissance in a few pages’. Resplendent sets, elegantly costumed dancers and colourful music were required. Several of the dances—which describe mythological subjects—adopt an imagined Baroque style (not so much neo-Baroque as Baroque pastiche), with Saint-Saëns consciously imitating Rameau, many of whose works he was later to edit.

The Maître des Jeux gives the signal for the entertainment to begin, after which twelve short dances follow, featuring the gods and goddesses of antiquity. First to enter are Venus, Juno and Pallas Athene, accompanied by an elegant, Baroque-style melody. Sharing her entrance with the Dryads and Naiads is Diana, the goddess of the hunt, who is unsurprisingly announced by a distant horn, while the music for Bacchus (the god of wine) and his followers assumes a jovial, boisterous character. These rowdy festivities give way to a much more genteel tone with the first of a trio of consecutive dances that are prefaced by a graceful, rising phrase to accompany the appearance of each god: Phoebus-Apollo, Cupid (L’Amour), and Psyche. Phoebus- Apollo’s music includes a tune taken from Thoinot Arbeau’s treatise of 1588 Orchésographie, better known in a more lively, urgent guise as the opening movement of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. Cupid’s dance is in the modern dance style that would not sound the slightest bit out of place in a Delibes ballet. Psyche enters to the same rising phrase as Phoebus, then dances with Cupid to a theme on the flute, gently supported by the harp. Castanets and a vibrant Neapolitan rhythm invite the whole ensemble to join in the dance.

This Psyche-Cupid dance, together with the flute variation that follows the castanets movement, comprise the only music from this ballet (or indeed the whole opera) that is performed with any regularity, having become a favourite among flautists (see tracks 18 and 19 for the solo version). Cupid’s variation is a brief, delicate solo for flute with solo cello in response, representing the love between Cupid and Psyche, who had provided the central character for operas by other French composers such as Lully and Thomas, as well as Franck’s symphonic tone poem, which had premiered just two years earlier in 1888. The drama continues as Cupid, instead of awarding the golden apple to Venus, Juno or Athene, gives it to the scheming Duchesse d’Étampes—the villain of the opera and the only mortal amongst this horde of deities. The last dance before the final Apotheosis is a lively modern waltz, instigated by a trumpet.

A decade separates Ascanio from Les Barbares, composed in 1900–01 and intended for outdoor performance in the magnificent Roman amphitheatre in the City of Orange, although it was never actually performed there due to logistical problems. That theatre is also the setting of the opera’s tale of conquest, sacrifice and revenge set in 105 BC, with a libretto by Victorien Sardou, the author of Tosca. The conflict between Gallo- Romans and Barbarians appealed to Saint-Saëns as an allegory of the tension between France and Germany, which grew considerably following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870). The opening Prologue starts tentatively with an air of apprehension, then gradually builds up to more animated writing before a solo violin introduces a Hymn to Venus ( 12  3:11). Distant brass fanfares announce the following lively section, which paves the way for the solo trumpet playing Livie’s song ( 12  10:24), Livie swearing vengeance for her husband, killed in battle by the man who has spared the Gauls from massacre at the hand of the Germans. The astonished Gauls are unaware that their freedom has been bought by Floria, the Vestal Virgin, renouncing her vows in the arms of the barbarian chief. As the barbarians finally depart, a celebration is called for ( 12  12:54), represented by a brief but joyful ballet.

A year after he completed Les Barbares Saint-Saëns was in London, where he crossed paths with Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actor at that time and celebrated throughout Europe. Bernhardt was also the manager of the Théâtre des Nations (which she re-named the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt), and asked Saint-Saëns to write incidental music for a production of Andromaque. Based on Euripides’ play Andromache and the third book of Virgil’s Aeneid, Andromaque is a tragedy by the French playwright Jean Racine, first performed in 1667 before the court of Louis XIV. Saint-Saëns’ music for the production comprises 17 numbers, some no longer than ten bars, while others, including the prelude and overture, are far more substantial. The composer himself admitted that the musical language in the overture was unconventional—full of ‘bizarre things’—in that the harmony is constantly, restlessly modulating from one key to another, perhaps representing Andromaque’s dilemma of being forced to save her son by giving herself to her captor Pyrrhus.

This trip abroad to London in 1902 was typical of the composer’s globetrotting tendencies, whether for holidays or concert tours. During a visit to Spain and Portugal in October 1880, the overture to his light opera La Princesse jaune was rapturously received in Lisbon. Like many French artists at this time, not least Debussy, Saint-Saëns was influenced by the Japonism movement in Paris and consequently chose to write an opera whose drama concerns a Japanese princess, conjured up musically through the exoticism of filigree passages in the harp, and more explicitly in the use of the pentatonic scale ( 16  2:35). Similarly, through its catchy rhythms, typically Spanish ‘turns’ and the use of castanets, the spirit of Spain is unambiguously evoked in La Jota aragonese. The jota is both a genre of music and the associated dance, most likely originating in Aragon, and Saint-Saëns’ own contribution, packed full of local colour, was composed soon after he returned from this enjoyable Spanish-Portuguese sojourn.

The musical world inhabited by such carefree works as La Princesse jaune and La Jota aragonese would be completely upturned three decades later, in Saint-Saëns’ native Paris. Just four days after the furore that immortalised the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris on 29 May 1913, a rather less controversial work received its premiere under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham in London: the 77-year-old Saint-Saëns’ Ouverture d’un opéra-comique inachevé (‘Overture to an unfinished comic opera’). It had been written some 60 years earlier and then left to sit in a drawer before Saint- Saëns discovered it and deemed it worthy to be performed. It begins in a good-natured manner, but this is soon threatened, initially by a shift to a minor key and then by multiple appearances of a tritone ( 17  2:31)—an interval famously used in the composer’s Danse macabre and historically known as the diabolus in musica (‘the devil in music’). In typical Saint-Saëns fashion, the cheerful character finally makes a welcome return and sees this almost completely unknown overture through to its happy conclusion.

Dominic Wells


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