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ClassicsOnline Home » SAINT-SAENS, C.: Violin and Piano Music, Vol. 1 (Clamagirand, V. Cohen)
“I like nothing better than chamber music,” Saint-Saëns once wrote to a violinist friend and, indeed, he did much to promote the genre in Paris during the second half of the 19th century. Prominent among his works for violin and piano is the technically challenging 1885 Violin Sonata No 1 which balances passion with clarity. The Triptyque of 1912 shows his mastery of melody, rhythm and metre, and elsewhere in this first volume one finds numerous examples of his instinct for charm and characterisation.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Music for Violin and Piano • 1
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.
Saint-Saëns dedicated the work published as Violin Sonata No 1 in D minor, Op 75, in 1885, dedicating it to the violinist Martin Marsick, with whom he had toured Switzerland the previous year. He had written sonatas for violin and piano earlier in his career, the first in 1842 and a second, which remained unfinished, in about 1850. The D minor Sonata is a technically demanding work. The first movement starts with a theme of some urgency, alternating between 6/8 and 9/8, contrasted with a calmer theme that serves as second subject. The effective Adagio, in E flat, follows without a break. The G minor Allegretto moderato, with a contrasting section, a trio to the scherzo, leads, again without a break, to the final Allegro molto, predominantly a moto perpetuo, with a place for a reminiscence of the second subject of the opening Allegro agitato. For a moment the violin allows the piano a share of the rapid figuration, before the sonata reaches an impressive conclusion.
The Berceuse, Op 38, in B flat major, was written in 1871. It is a piece of gentle charm, with a central section that changes in key and is marked un peu animé. The opening theme returns as the cradle-song comes to an end. The impeccably crafted Elégie, Op 160, was written in North Africa in 1920 and dedicated to the talented amateur violinist, mayor of Algiers and municipal benefactor, Charles de Galland, in memory of the composer Alexis de Castillon. The other Elégie, Op 143, was written during the Great War and dated July 1915. In D major, like the later work it avoids anything of the lugubrious in a finely crafted work that seems to come from another age.
The Sarabande and Rigaudon, Op 93, written in 1892, were originally scored for orchestra, the first piece for solo violin and strings and the second also with wind instruments. The Romance, Op 37, was written in 1871, scored for solo flute and orchestra, with arrangements for flute or violin and piano. The flute version was taken into the repertoire of the flautist and conductor Paul Taffanel. L’air de la pendule (Air of the Clock) was written in September 1918 and marks a visit to the King and Queen of the Belgians, friends and patrons of the composer. It was copied on an antique clock representing a cupid carrying a lyre and having by him a desk with a page on which was engraved this air.
Triptyque, Op 136, dates from 1912 and was dedicated to the Belgian Queen Elisabeth, descended from a cadet branch of the ruling family of Bavaria and herself a violinist and important patron of the arts. Saint-Saëns had for long enjoyed the support of the Belgian royal family. The second of the three pieces that form his Triptyque bears the title Vision congolaise (Congolese Vision). This touches, in its title at least, the Belgian colonisation of the Congo, with the Belgian share of the region until 1908 in the direct control of King Leopold II, uncle of Queen Elisabeth’s husband, Albert. The first of the three pieces, Prémice, marked Allegretto, demonstrates the supreme craftsmanship of Saint-Saëns. The Vision congolaise brings touches of the exotic, within the necessary boundaries of the taste and fancy of the composer. The whole set ends with the lively rejoicing of Joyeuseté. It is hard to imagine the new age of music that was gaining ascendancy at the time of the composition of this work. Born at a time when Chopin was beginning to establish himself in Paris and Mendelssohn was at the height of his career, Saint-Saëns now, at the age of 77, found himself in a period when Stravinsky was about to launch his Sacre du printemps, Debussy had already written his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé was staged. In France, at least, Saint-Saëns seemed a figure from the past, as Ravel, unkindly, made clear.
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