Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Saint-Saëns: Beyond the Bacchanale

If this were a radio or TV documentary, I'd say "They say the devil has all the best tunes" and as I'm speaking the opening strains of Camille Saint-Saëns' much-loved Danse Macabre would start up, devishly. To get the right effect on a blog you'll probably need to say it aloud to yourself just after you've click on the link!

Danse Macabre has a couple of the best tunes - if by 'best' you mean delightful and infernally memorable ones. Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) scores a high success rate when it comes to inventing popular melodies. His hit tunes are, so to speak, legion. Thinking off the top of my head, there are a number from the opera Samson and Delilah, including the ever-entertaining Bacchanale (the big tune first appearing at 1.52) and Delilah's gently sensuous aria Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix (Softly awakes my heart), plus plenty from from the much-loved Carnival of the Animals, such as the shimmering Aquarium and the melancholy The Swan. With a little help from Babe, the magical main theme of the finale from the Third (Organ) Symphony is also a familiar favourite and star violinists have helped make the flamboyant rondo tune (beginning at 1.51) from the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso a runaway success with the public. There's a toe-tapping hit tune (beginning at 1.15) in the glittering Wedding Cake too and who doesn't know the sultry opening melody of the Havanaise? Plus there are tunes aplenty in the three most popular concertos - the Piano Concerto No.2, Violin Concerto No.3 and Cello Concerto No.1 - and check out the shadowy theme (3.23 in) of Le rouet d'Omphale. I suspect I've forgotten to mention a few other favourites.

Yes, Saint-Saëns certainly had the gift of melody. He also had the gift of placing all those tunes in beautifully-balanced structures and decking them out in the most enticing instrumental colours. All the pieces mentioned above show a level of craftsmanship and fluency that earned the composer the nickname 'The French Mendelssohn'.

Ah, Mendelssohn, craftsmanship and fluency! Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, not to some people. Saint-Saëns has been the butt of endless sneers and sniping from critics and musicologists. I might be happily reading a book on, say, the history of classical songs, only to read (in the chapter devoted to French song) that Saint-Saëns is "superficial", or a book of essays by a great writer like Charles Rosen only to be told, in an aside, that his music isn't "nourishing". It's quite amazing how often I've come across passing gibes at this composer, which is partly why I've written this post - to register a protest!

He is the major composer who seems to get it in the neck most. Tchaikovsky used to get it to - tellingly - but his reputation has soared again, leaving only poor Saint-Saëns in the dog-house. Presumably his deeply hostile and reactionary attitude (and the word 'reactionary' crops up in several attacks) towards the pioneers of music - the likes of Debussy and Stravinsky - has given critics who swallow the simplistic (but psychologically attractive) historicist, progressive view of music history an easy punch-bag. His tunefulness, charm and popular appeal certainly won't have endeared him to writers who believe that music is a serious, sacred art that should challenge the listener.

Still, in CD review sections of magazines (Gramophone, BBC Music and the like)  there are - despite the odd lingering condescending comment - regular, ongoing gasps of pleasure from critic after critic at some unfamiliar piece from that vast ocean of neglect which constitutes the bulk of Saint-Saëns output. Saint-Saëns has always had his admirers, some of whom are keen to point out that there is depth even in some of the most popular pieces (the wonderful slow movement of the Organ Symphony or the finale of the third Violin Concerto, for example), and when you venture out beyond the dozen or so favourites you find piece after piece that displays exquisite craftsmanship, wit, charm, musical intelligence and an ear for melody, occasionally even drama and - when the composer is in the mood - depth.

Anyhow, why should every work of music try to save the world? What's wrong with just giving delight? Why is a knack for catchy melody a bad thing? Why is exquisite craftsmanship not something to celebrate?

The favourites are favourites for a reason, but here are a few less familiar pieces from Saint-Saëns which I hope you'll also enjoy:

It's good to begin with a delightful masterpiece, as light in spirit as it is technically accomplished. It's scored for the unusual combination of piano, trumpet, string quartet and double bass. The Preambule may at times sound like a Baroque trumpet concerto, but its fugal writing, the piano's romantic flourishes and the dreamy passages could only come from a composer well versed in the music of Mendelssohn and Schumann. This winning mix continues in the following Minuet, which starts off with the stately strut of the 18th Century but soon mingles it with romantic writing led by the strings and which contains at its heart a tune for unison trumpet and strings over rolling piano arpeggios of such hummability that you might well, indeed, find yourself humming along with it once you've heard it a couple of times. There's then a slow movement (Intermede) that glows with something of the warmth of Robert Schumann. To a catchy accompaniment, the strings weave a melody of much beauty. This is a rather wistful movement with a dramatic climax and is far from being frivolous. The Gavotte and Finale breaks the melancholy with the cheeriest of tunes, offering us sparkle from the piano, a spry fugue and some bright-eyed trumpet writing.

2. Bassoon Sonata, Op.168 
Beautifully written, the sonata opens with delicious rippling from the piano and a lovely melody from the bassoon that breathes out mellow air. There are subtleties of texture and rhythm midway through the first movement and a pleasing tweaking of one of the main tunes shortly after. Now, if that movement plays to the bassoon's lyrical side, the loveable Scherzo that follows brings out the instrument's extrovert side and gives us a memorable main theme, as does its genial Trio section. The cheeky little contrary motion passage at the end makes me smile. The Adagio is gentle and serenade-like with a whistlable main tune of considerable charm that I hope you'll take to. The Finale contents itself with a swift presentation of a few ideas then packs up to go home with a final flourish - another instance of  Saint-Saëns's wit.

There's nothing superficial or unnourishing about this piece, which begins in an heroic-lyrical style that should keep you on  the edge of your seat. This first movement reminds some people of Beethoven, though it reminds me more of Brahms. It leads seamlessly into the beautiful, tender slow movement which begins with a long-breathed melody from the violin set against the sort of delightful piano figuration that Saint-Saëns made his own. There's a gently sparkling scherzo with a lyrical trio section followed by a virtuoso finale. 

Now this is fun. It start with an introductory dance full of whole tone scales ending with a bang in a passage that suggests bell-ringing. After such Debussyan devilry, Saint-Saëns pulls a rabbit from the hat with a smile - a charming,  light-hearted tune in Spanish style that could win this work many friends. This is the main theme and is followed by a spry second theme played in canon with lightly-worn contrapuntal brilliance. The romantic Trio section sets a gentle tune against a syncopated accompaniment (and trills), and another tune soon joins it, all providing a pleasing foil to the lively main section of the Scherzo which, naturally, returns soon after. A return of the open music, preceded by a passage that makes delightful use of chromatic scales, opens the coda which then treats us a very pleasant surprise - a deliciously silly tune, like the most vulgar Offenbach tune you could imagine!

5. Morceau de concert for harp and orchestra, Op.154. 
This opens with a seductive theme on harp, accompanied by short, sharp orchestral chords, which reminds me of the enchanting 'Babe' tune from the finale of the Third Symphony. The transition to the second subject is full of fantasy and the second subject itself is another winning melody, this time with folksong-like characteristics, which is passed around the players in a delectable way. Another tune, lyrical in character, is set to appear in the central section, which is a slow movement in all but name, before a bright fast finale brings yet more tunes - the second of which is a lilting charmer - before the 'Babe'-like them returns to crown the whole piece. Never mind Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns is positively Mozartian in his melodic generosity. Deep? Probably not. Delightful? Oh yes!

6. Africafantasy for piano and orchestra, Op.89
Full of romantic sparkle and packed with tunes, this is a joy from start to finish. Best of all is the romantic second melody (at 1.41), which will surely beguile all but the most musically puritan, but I'm also partial to the brashly exotic 'Arab' tune that appears at 6.05 (not one for the late Edward Said perhaps!)

7. Piano Concerto No.4, Op.44
This is my favourite of the five piano concertos. Is it in one, two, three or four movement? Saint-Saëns's satisfying but innovative structure refuses to give a hard and fast answer. The structure and all the work's thematic transformations give food for the brain while the many great tunes and brilliant scoring tickle the ear. There is bravura and lyricism plus variations and a magnificent chorale that reminds me of the 'Babe' theme from the Organ Symphony in the work's first half and an entertaining scherzo and a beautiful fugue in the second half, plus the return of the chorale and a swashbuckling final section. This is a masterly concerto.

8. Piano Concerto No.5 (Egyptian), Op.103
Irresistible entertainment. The first movement opens with the piano presenting the simple but adorable main theme, which is immediately repeated by the strings with pearly counter-figuration from the piano - now that's an opening! - and the tune is scrumptiously rescored in the recapitulation. The movement contains some fine development of the theme, a mellow and romantic second subject and a meltingly lovely coda. The 'exotic' slow movement has its critics, but I think it's a treat for the senses. It tries to conjure up the atmosphere of a sultry afternoon by the Nile, complete with croaking frogs, Arabs playing their instruments and a 'Nubian love song' (I think you'll probably spot the frogs!) There is some wonderfully-imagined orchestration here. The Finale's opening depicts boats' propellers before punching out its main theme and its equally vigorous companion. Saint-Saëns thought virtuosity a wonderful thing, and this concerto is full of wonderful virtuosity, especially this dazzling finale. (Lover of the 'exotic' side of the composer (like me) are bound to enjoy his overture La princess jaune). 

9. Phaeton, Op.39
Saint-Saëns introduced the symphonic poem (that creation of his friend Liszt) to France and for an attractive example of one of his own please give this one a whirl. It's a scorcher!

10. Christmas Oratorio, Op.12 
This 40-minute gem is a glowing, intimate-sounding choral work for soloists, chorus, harp, organ and orchestra. Like Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns sought to bring the spirit of Bach back into choral music, though this is very much a late Romantic's take on Bach. My favourite movements are the purely orchestral Prelude ("in the style of Seb. Bach"), the gorgeous Benedictus (a duet for soprano and bass that deserves to become immensely popular) and the sweet Trio Tecum principum (with its delicate harp writing) but, in truth, there's very little that fails to beguile the listener in this melody-rich work. Instead of a Bach-style chorale, the closing chorus is a hymn in the manner of a French carol. 

I hope I've tempted you to give a few of Saint-Saëns pieces a spin (or, more like, a click). There are still lots of unfamiliar pieces by the composer for me to explore too.

Such as...(an update!)...

Another fine piece that, placed alongside the Violin Sonata No.1, proves once and for all that Saint-Saëns's elegant, logical art can result in chamber music which goes well beyond mere superficial charm. The opening movement is the most lyrical one, mixing lively motion with more relaxed moods. The superb second movement plays with two main themes - one strongly rhythmic, the other chorale-like - and builds up a remarkable head of steam as its pace picks up and as the themes are treated in ever more ingenious contrapuntal ways. I think this movement will really surprise you. A somewhat lighter scherzo, full of tricksy rhythms, follows before the Finale carries us into cyclic form, bringing back earlier themes and whirling them up towards a counterpoint-filled climax. 

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