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ClassicsOnline Home » SAINT-SAENS: Symphony No. 3 / Piano Concerto No. 2
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 - 1921)
Introduction and Rondo capriccioso in A minor, Op. 28
Danse macabre, Op. 40
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op. 22
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op. 78, "Organ"
Camille Saint-Saëns enjoyed a long and prolific career as a composer. As a younger man he was a leading supporter of newer tendencies in French music: in old age his opposition to Debussy, whom he outlived by three years, earned him a deserved reputation as an enemy of w hat was seen as progress. His later critics, who could hardly dispute his technical command, wrote of bad music well written, an unmerited jibe at a composer who had achieved much in a variety of fields. An admirer of Mozart, he was known to some as the French Mendelssohn, and his music always possessed the clarity of form and texture common to these earlier composers, elements that influenced his friend and pupil Gabriel Fauré and, vicariously, Fauré's own pupil Maurice Ravel. Gounod referred to him as the French Beethoven, and these flattering comparisons are evidence of the esteem in which he was held.
In his personal life Saint-Saëns was not always fortunate. As a boy he was brought up by his mother and his great-aunt, two women to whom he was devoted, the latter his first teacher. His marriage at the age of forty to a nineteen-year-old, to his mother's marked disapproval, was predictably disastrous and was brought to an end, after the death of his two young sons through illness and accident. In 1881 Saint-Saëns, on holiday with his wife, simply walked out, never to return. For the remaining forty years of his life, and particularly after the death of his mother in 1888, he lavished affection on his dogs and on his pupil Fauré, whom he had first met as a student at the Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris in 1861.
A child prodigy as a pianist, Saint-Saëns entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1848, studying the organ with Benoist and composition with Bizet's father-in-law Halevy. After earlier positions as organist, in 1857 he became organist at the Madeleine, where his improvisations made a profound impression on Liszt. His own catholic musical tastes led to do much to revive interest in France in the music of Bach, Handel and Mozart, while his progressive interests led him to an appreciation of Wagner, of Schumann and of the innovative symphonic poems of Liszt. In 1871 he shared in the establishment of the société Nationale de Musique for the encouragement of contemporary French music, although, as the years passed, he found the new world of music unacceptable.
Saint-Saëns added very significantly to violin repertoire, with three concertos for the instrument, in addition to a number of shorter works for violin and orchestra. The most popular of these last is the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Opus 28, written in 1863, during his brief period as a piano teacher at the Ecole Niedermeyer. Saint-Saëns dedicated this, as well as his first and third concertos, to the Spanish virtuoso Pablo Sarasate. The Introduction and Rondo caprccioso makes considerable use of Spanish rhythms and turns of phrase.
The Danse macabre, with its rattling skeletons, was written in 1874 and constitutes a remarkable and characteristically witty re-creation of the Dance of Death, with Death himself as a ghostly midnight fiddler.
The second of his five piano concertos, the Concerto in G minor, Opus 22, was written in the space of seventeen days in 1868 at the request of Anton Rubinstein, with Saint-Saëns as soloist. The same concert brought a greater contemporary attraction in Sarasate's performance of the composer's first violin concerto, welcomed more warmly by the audience. Liszt, however, gave his gracious approval and encouragement: Saint- Saëns impressed him, and was, in any case, one of the few French pianists to perform Liszt's own piano transcriptions.
The concerto opens with a cadenza over a long, sustained note, followed by a first expressive theme, succeeded in turn by a second subject, again entrusted first to the soloist. The second movement is introduced by the timpani and relies on two contrasting themes of markedly different character, the first very much in the spirit of a scherzo, and the second of overtly popular character. In the last movement Saint-Saëns displays his command of brilliant piano-writing, ending the concerto with considerable panache.
The third and last of the numbered symphonies that Saint-Saëns wrote, the so-called Organ Symphony, was completed in 1886, the year of the famous private jeu d' esprit, Le carnaval des animaux. It was dedicated to the memory of Franz Liszt, who died that year in Bayreuth. The two movements of the work include the normal structure of a four-movement symphony, with the use of cyclic thematic material, melodies or fragments of melodies that recur and provide over-all unity, a technique used by César Franck in his own symphony, which he had started in the same year.
The first movement, after a slow introduction, leads to a theme of Mendelssohnian character, followed by a second subject of a gentler cast. The organ introduces a slow movement of sadder complexion, in which - memories of the cyclic theme recur, as it undergoes its Lisztian metamorphosis into something still richer and stranger. A following section takes the place of a scherzo, opening with an energetic string melody, and framing a more lyrical passage at its heart. The final part of the symphony is again started by the organ, introducing an orchestral fugato. This last movement is of considerable variety, including a chorale, that makes an early appearance in an unusual form, polyphonic writing and a brief pastoral interlude, replaced by the massive climax of the whole symphony.
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SAINT-SAENS: Symphony No. 3 / Piano Concerto No. 2