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ClassicsOnline Home » SAINT-SAENS: Javotte / Parysatis
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Javotte • Parysatis: Airs du ballet
Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, Camille Saint-Saëns showed
remarkable precocity as a child, first shown in piano lessons from his
great-aunt at the age of two and a half. He coupled with his musical interests
a wide general enthusiasm for learning of all kinds, literary and scientific,
and was, as a composer, to produce music of many genres during a career that
spanned the second half of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of
the twentieth, starting in a period that knew Mendelssohn and continuing beyond
the death of Debussy.
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. 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.
1896 brought the death of Ambroise Thomas, director of the
Conservatoire, and the opportunity for Fauré to join the teaching staff.
Saint-Saëns was finding interest in a ballet scenario sent him by J.L.Croze,
who worked at the Folies-Marigny. That theatre failed, however, and when
attempts to interest La Monnaie in Brussels in the project came to nothing, the
new ballet, Javotte, was eagerly taken on by Lyon, where it was staged. It was
mounted at the Opéra in Paris in 1909.
The play Parysatis, by Jane Dieulafoy, was first staged in
the Arena at Béziers in August 1902, with incidental music by Saint-Saëns. Jane
Henriette Magre Dieulafoy shared with her husband, Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy,
archaeological investigations in Persia in 1881-82 and 1884-86, expeditions
that led to significant additions to the collections of the Louvre. In addition
to the publications of her husband, Jane Dieulafoy wrote a number of books,
including illustrated reports of the excavations and discoveries of the French
expeditions. In France she chose to dress as a man, and after the performance
of her orientalist play Parysatis, appeared on stage, wearing her short jacket
and breeches, with Saint-Saëns, to acknowledge the very considerable applause
of the audience, as Fauré reported.
The name of the heroine Parysatis is taken from the Persian
word for swallow. The historical Parysatis was the half-sister and wife of
Darius II. She was the mother of Cyrus, who rebelled against his brother
Artaxerxes, and the play opens with the death of Cyrus, and the further
plotting of Parysatis in the dynastic struggles of the time. The music that
Saint-Saëns provided for the work was written principally during a visit to
Egypt in 1901, when he stayed in an exotic villa on an island in the Nile,
thanks to the brother of the Khedive, Mohammed Ali Pasha. The full ballet music
from Act II of Parysatis includes Le rossignol et la rose (The Nightingale and
the Rose), a wordless song suggested by a Greek singer he had heard in
Alexandria. The present recording includes only the instrumental introduction
and three ballet scenes, as exotic in mood as much of the rest of the score.
 The first scene, La fête au village, opens in the
village square. The place is decorated with greenery. To the left is a tree,
with a bench beneath it, and a platform for the musicians. In the background is
a church. As the curtain rises the dance is in full swing, the stage filled
with couples. Jean, who is in love with Javotte, is sitting apart, on the
bench, refusing the invitations of girls to join them in the dance, as he waits
sadly for the appearance of his beloved. The girls give up, laughing at him, as
he moves away. The dance continues.  The scene is interrupted by the arrival
of Javotte’s angry father and mother. They approach the constable, dressed for
the holiday, and explain to him that their daughter has escaped from the house
and come, presumably, to join her lover. They ask everyone if they have seen
her, but they all deny it. They are about to continue their search, but the
constable offers his services to catch the bird and put her back in the cage.
The three of them go out. The dance resumes, and the couples laugh again at
Jean, who has returned, still sighing for his beloved.  Javotte now appears,
running, out of breath, happy and laughing, and throws herself into Jean’s
arms.  They dance together,  and this is followed by a Bourrée, danced by
the whole company, joined by Javotte and Jean.
 The church bell rings and the dance stops. The girls
hurry to attend Vespers, and the others follow, leaving Jean and Javotte alone,
with a small group of drinkers sitting at a table in the background. Javotte is
thoughtful, and Jean questions her and invites her to kiss him, now they are
alone. She refuses, admitting her fault in disobeying her parents, and bursts
into tears, consoled by Jean. She thinks her friends are better than she is,
since they have gone into the church.
 Javotte’s parents return, without the constable. When
her father sees her, he is about to strike her, but she takes refuge with her
mother, admitting her fault, begging her pardon and ready to return home. 8
They go off together, leaving Jean more than ever the butt of the mockery of
the young people, who now re-appear.
 The second scene, A la maison, is set in the house of
Javotte’s parents. It is a typical rustic interior, with a lamp, a clock, a
dresser. Near the table there is a spinning-wheel. Through the large window at
the back the lights of the village festival can be seen. Javotte’s parents are
there, and her mother sets her daughter to work with the washing-up and
sweeping, and then, when she has finished, spinning. Her parents set out for
the village celebration, her father rejuvenated at the thought of dancing and
drinking. She is to be punished by staying at home to look after the house and
do the housework. They are about to go, when her father turns back to close the
window and lock the door.  Javotte starts her work, but drops one of the
dishes, which breaks. She deserves her punishment, and yet dancing is such a
pleasure and Jean loves her, and is so handsome. As she muses on this, she
takes from her sash the flowers that Jean had given her and kisses them,
sighing. She sketches out a few dance steps, breaks off in remorse,  and
returns to work at the spinning-wheel. The thread tangles and then breaks, and
she casts her work aside, turning instead to knitting, but after a few stitches
she has had enough of that, throws it down, and starts to dance again. After
dancing, she takes up the broom. There is a knock at the door, but she cannot
open it. There is more knocking, now at the window,  which she runs to
open. It is Jean, who has been waiting for Javotte’s parents to go. He jumps in
through the window, and kisses Javotte, who takes him by the hand, like an
honoured guest, and shows him the room with a lamp, a clock and a dresser. 
Then, with leaps of joy that bring some disorder to the room, she dances with
her lover. They agree to run away together, leaving through the window.
 Javotte’s parents soon return, her father slightly
tipsy, and her mother somewhat dishevelled. The day is drawing to a close. They
see the room in disorder and the window open, and understand what has happened.
At this moment there is a knock at the door and the constable appears, assuring
them that he has found their daughter and her lover. The parents prepare
themselves for their daughter’s return, only to meet two strangers. They think
that they are being made fun of, and a quarrel follows, as the scene comes to
an end in general confusion.
 The third scene, La reine du bal, is again set in the
village. It is night and the dancing is lit by lanterns. All the villagers are
there,  and the leading people come together to choose the festival queen.
They decide to choose the best dancer from among the girls.  The first
competitor comes forward to dance, but the judges are not quite satisfied. 
A second dances, with the same result,  while after the third, the judges
disagree.  A fourth girl dances, but the judges cannot make up their minds.
 At this point Javotte and Jean appear,  and Javotte dances for the
judges, outshining her rivals,  and is proclaimed queen.  The four
unsuccessful competitors console themselves by dancing with their partners.
 Javotte’s parents appear, with the constable, who
demands Jean and Javotte, in the name of the law.  They are shielded by the
other young people, who say they do not know where the fugitives are.
Eventually, though, they are found. Javotte’s father wants to kill them, only
restrained by the constable, who rebukes the young couple. Jean pleads that
they are in love and ready to marry. Javotte’s parents discuss the matter
together,  and then agree to the match.  Javotte is borne in a
triumphant procession as queen of the festival, Jean with her.  Then they
dance together,  and there is a dance for the girls,  and a final dance
in which all join.
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SAINT-SAENS: Javotte / Parysatis