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ClassicsOnline Home » SAINT-SAENS, C.: Piano Quartet / Piano Quintet / Barcarolle (Fine Arts Quartet, Ortiz)
Saint-Saëns holds a vital place in the history of French chamber music. At a time when his compatriots were more devoted to opera and song, Saint-Saëns (who wrote both, too) repeatedly produced chamber music of compelling individuality and lasting significance. The 1875 Piano Quartet in B flat major, Op 41 remains one of the great works in the chamber repertory, a masterful example of the composer’s organisational skill and lyric gifts. The gorgeous Barcarolle is followed by the youthful Piano Quintet in A minor, Op 14, a brilliantly confident work with a concerto-like rôle for the piano.
By Ian Lace
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Piano Quartet in B flat major, Op 41 • Piano Quintet in A minor, Op 14 • Barcarolle in F major, Op 108
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, for some eight years, scandalized Paris with his Rite of Spring. Saint-Saëns continued to compose, although Ravel unkindly suggested that in wartime 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.
Saint-Saëns wrote the second of his two piano quartets, the Piano Quartet in B flat major, Op 41, in 1875 and gave the first performance on 8 March of that year at the Salle Pleyel with the violinist Pablo de Sarasate, violist Alfred Turban, leader of the Opéra orchestra, and cellist Léon Jacquart. The establishment of the Société Nationale had given the necessary stimulus to French chamber music, for which an audience now seemed assured, and Saint-Saëns was a notable contributor to the genre. The first movement starts with a series of piano chords and continues with an air of relative tranquillity, the violin introducing a lyrical second subject and the whole often suggesting an idiom that Fauré was to make his own. The mood changes with the ferocity behind the G minor Andante maestoso, opened dramatically by the piano and demonstrating the expected contrapuntal skill. Its chorale theme is to return later in the last movement. The rapid D minor third movement pauses to allow a short violin cadenza and a second cadenza for the piano. It ends at an increased speed, moving to Presto and then Prestissimo. The finale starts in the same key, includes quotations from themes from the first and second movement, and duly returns to the key of B flat major with which the work had started.
The Barcarolle, Op 108, was written in 1897 and was curiously scored for violin, cello, harmonium and piano. It was first performed at La Trompette, the music society formed by the amateur enthusiast Emile Lemoine, an organisation strongly supported by Saint-Saëns. On this occasion Saint-Saëns played the harmonium, which confines itself principally to sustained notes, and the piano was played by Louis Diémer. Saint-Saëns wisely provided another version, scored for violin, viola, cello and piano, the arrangement played here. This starts with the swaying movement of the gondola, introduced now by viola and cello. The music increases in intensity, as the boat moves into rougher water, which soon subsides into something calmer.
The Piano Quintet in A minor, Op 14, was written in 1854–55 and dedicated to the composer’s great-aunt Madame Masson née Gayard. It was given its first public performance ten years later. Like Schumann’s Piano Quintet, which was presumably unknown to Saint-Saëns at the time, the work offers a demanding piano part, with the piano often in the rôle of a concerto solo instrument. Nevertheless, as the quintet proceeds the strings seem to come more into their own. The first movement opens with solemn piano chords and the piano accompanies the following string theme, sotto voce, with rippling semiquaver triplet ornamentation. The F major second movement opens with a hymn-like theme for the piano, answered by the muted strings in D minor. The Scherzo follows without a break and in the key of A minor, propelled forward by the continued rapid semiquaver figuration of the piano part. The cello starts the finale with a long fugal theme, answered by the viola, then the second violin and finally the first violin, leaving the piano to enter in accompaniment before offering its own version of the thematic material, at first in left-hand octaves, answered by the right hand in imitation, a canon at the fifth. The work ends in triumph, a very considerable achievement in a twenty-year-old composer and testimony to his own ability as a pianist. It might be added that the publishers in 1865 included an optional double-bass part for the third and fourth movements of the quintet and that Saint-Saëns later performed it with orchestral strings, a recognition of the nature and technical demands of the piano part.
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