To celebrate, to commemorate: Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Better late than never, we are catching up with marking the centenary of Saint-Saëns’ death in 1921 (I always forget how far into the twentieth century he lived). He will forever be remembered for the Carnaval des animaux and especially the “dying swan”, “elephant” and “pianists” movements therefrom. But, dear reader, he was so very much more than that and in the next twenty seconds, how many works can you name? … Right, time’s up. What have you got? The organ symphony (no. 3) perhaps, his opera Samson and Delilah maybe, or his glorious Piano Quintet, the septet or a piano concerto or two. Those of you who are harpists will have written down the Fantasie, op. 95. But that is, in fact, the tip of the iceberg as he produced well over 350 works in all genres, so, plenty to get our teeth into.

Michel Calvocoressi, in his article on the composer for Grove V writes: “From the outset he displayed a great ability in piano-playing, a sensitive ear, great musical memory and an unerring sense of pitch.” He was indeed precocious – his first piano recital at age 11 for example, at the Salle Pleyel. He met Liszt in his early teens and at 26 became a piano professor at the École Niedermeyer – Fauré was one of his pupils and the two men remained lifelong friends.

According to Stravinsky, Saint-Saëns was “A sharp little man” (this was after the first concert performance of The Rite of Spring). And as Roger Nichols writes in the preface to Camille Saint-Saëns: on music and musicians, [M470.c.200.102] his well-chosen selection of Saint-Saëns’ writing: “Saint-Saëns’ sharpness [was] something to be negotiated, a dangerous reef in the far from untroubled waters of Parisian musical life.” [Surely not the same today – I appeal to my Parisian readers to reassure…]. Yes, Saint-Saëns reacted strongly to the changes in compositional style which were taking place at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, both in his writing and by continuing to compose in a clearly diatonic idiom, perhaps to make the point that excellent work could still be done in the “old fogey” manner. Opinionated, yes, outspoken, yes, but his observations were always insightful and never superficial. Many wry smiles passed across my face as I read a selection, but equally I found myself thinking “yes, absolutely” or “I couldn’t agree more” as he addressed a particular topic with clarity, insight and forthrightness.

And, like Liszt, Saint-Saëns was a ferociously able keyboard player – and from a precociously early age. Equally at home on piano or organ, he had the most prodigious technique. Stephen Studd in his excellent biography [M517.c.95.337] describes his platform presence: “The short, business-like figure would walk smartly to the piano stool and begin to play apparently without any mental preparation whatever” [we all know pianists who appear to pray earnestly to some deity before they even think of touching the keyboard] “he would play with the minimum of bodily movement, his face expressionless, with none of the wild contortions audiences had come to expect.” Well hooray, say I! It’s all in the fingers, their strength and suppleness. And to go back to Calvocoressi again he referred to Saint-Saëns’s “purity, perspicacity and ease” in an article for Musical Times of June 1912. It seems, however, that Clara Schumann did not approve “His playing is all octaves, with interchanging hands, arpeggios over the whole keyboard…enormously powerful hands, trills with thirds in two hands, etc. This really ceases to be piano playing and become a tightrope-walking act.” Ouch! But then, she came from a totally different school of pianism, and surely the poor man can’t have spent an entire work in such intensive technical workouts! But it’s OK, Liszt was on his side (and with a technique like his, you’d expect it wouldn’t you?) who thought that he and Saint-Saëns were the only people left in Europe who knew how to play the instrument! And we mustn’t forget that it wasn’t just the show-off pieces Saint-Saëns performed: he was a great champion of Rameau, Couperin, Bach and particularly Mozart (who was distinctly out of fashion at the time) – no double octaves and trills in thirds in both hands there! Surely this is a demonstration of a true musician rather than a follower of whoever’s music was fashionable at the time.

Goodness, I’ve burbled for long enough about Saint-Saëns and the piano. He did compose for other instruments, ensembles, voices…in fact, in most combinations you care to name in his extensive output.

And what of the Cambridge connection I hear you ask? Well, he was here in June 1893 representing France to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Cambridge University Musical Society, or CUMS, as we call it, which Stanford, then Professor of Music had masterminded, including the conferring of an Honorary Doctorate. En route to the event he stopped off in London to give a performance of his Second Piano Concerto at a Philharmonic Society concert. Tchaikovsky was there too, as indeed he was in Cambridge along with Boito and Bruch. You can see all of their autographs in the “Golden Book” of C.U.M.C. held at the Pendlebury Library.

From the “Golden Book” of C.U.M.C.
https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-XRB-00858-00018-B-X-00001/19

Saint-Saëns gives an account of his visit to our University in his Portraits et souvenirs of 1899 and is clearly utterly engaged with the splendid ritual that is our honorary degree ceremony: “It began with us being dressed up in ample silk gowns with broad red and white sleeves, and capped with black velvet mortar boards with gold tassels; and decked out thus, we walked in procession through the town under  scorching sun…Dare I confess that being an enemy of the commonplace and of the nondescript style of our modern clothes, I was delighted with this adventure?”

It was quite an occasion: the day before the degree ceremony there was a banquet at King’s College preceded by a reception at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Afterwards, another banquet – this time at Christ’s College and then Saint-Saëns gave a concert on the organ in Trinity Chapel [good choice, it’s my favourite Cambridge College chapel]. He seems to have enjoyed his visit professing to like our “nest of pointed Gothic arches in green fields”. Clearly, dear reader, a man of excellent taste as well as a truly splendid musician. Hats, off, we salute you Saint-Saëns.

SW

PS: I apologise on Saint-Saëns’ behalf for not quoting him in his native language.

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