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Clever Craftsmanship: Saint-Saens "Organ" Symphony

The MHS Review 376 Vol. 10, No. 16 • 1986

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Julie Jordan

The entrancing characteristics of this particular symphony, which set it apart from Saint-Saens numerous other works, are due to the brilliantly full orchestration, including the special fea­ture of the organ and two pianos.


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The "French tradition"· full of its classical elegance and resistance to the extremes of "romantic expression, was transmitted through the new generation of composers that surfaced in the Societe Nationale de Musique in 1871. Famous as one of the most progressive forces of his time, Charles Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) founded (together with Romain Bussine, a colleague from the Conservatoire) this Societe, which would encourage native composers by providing vital opportunities for their new music to be performed and heard. This revival in France came at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, beginning with nationalistic inspiration and gradually enriched by new idioms and technical procedures, and established the significance of French music in the 20th century, Among the composers who enjoyed-the exposure in this sanctuary of French art were Franck, lndy, Chabrier, Chausson, Dukas, Faure, Magnard, and Ravel.

Born a Parisian, Saint-Saens, survived his fragile infancy, in which he was feared to have contracted the germs of consump­tion that killed his young father. Nurtured by his mother and great-aunt, Saint-Saens was a most remarkable child prodigy. By the time he was three years old, he was reading and writing as well as playing tunes on the piano. The autograph of his first composition (March 22, 1839), is preserved in the Paris Conser­vatoire. He pursued his early education, as he had revealed a precocious facility in Latin, geometry, and, most importantly, musical instincts. Gifted with absolute pitch as well as a photo­graphic memory, Saint-Saens astonished the music world with his performances, the Boston Musical Gazette reported on Au­gust 3, 1846, that a "boy in Paris ... only ten and a half years old, ... plays the music of Handel, Sebastian Bach, Mozart, Beetho­ven and the more modern masters, without any book before him ... " After attracting attention in the salons of fashionable Paris, Saint-Saens made his official debut at age ten. While at the Conservatoire, he received recognition for his compositions; and by the time he was 18, his First Symphony in E-flat major was praised by Gounod and Berlioz, both of whom were un­aware of its author.

Recognized for his flexible adaptability, the young Camille had the power to absorb the exotic colors and local impressions of his contemporaries, such as Rossini, Schumann, and Wagner, while maintaining his own originality. Gounod stated that "he writes as he feels, and with what he knows"; Saint-Saens himself acknowledged his personal "purity of style and perfection of form."

His time was divided between virtuoso performances as both a pianist and organist, in addition to his prolific compos­ing. He was the organist at the Madeleine for many years and was especially admired by Franz Liszt. The feeling of apprecia­tion was mutual, and later Liszt was to become one of the guid­ing forces of his artistic growth. In 1861, Saint-Saens was ap­pointed professor at the Ecole Niedermeyer, and among his dedicated and prominent pupils were the composers Gabriel Faure and Andre Messanger and the organists Eugene Gigout and Edouard Marlois. Aller twice failing to win the Prix de Rome, Saint-Saens was chosen the winner in a competition instituted by the Imperial Government in 1867, during which Berlioz as an adjudicator expressed his delight at the success of "his young friend Camille Saint Saens, one of the greatest musicians of our epoch."

Saint Saens composed five symphonies (of which only three arc published), four symphonic poems (openly influenced by Liszt, especially the famous Danse Macabre), 13 operas several concerti (including the effective Plano Concerto in G minor, for Carnival of the Animals two pianist -- full of clever charm, and the virtuosic Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for vio­lin and orchestra). He also wrote a great deal of chamber music, in addition to quantities of music for piano, voice, and organ. It was Liszt, whom he had met in 1852, who became a most influential patron and turned him toward the "cyclic" design in his symphonic works, concerti, and his Third Symphony in C minor, op. 78.

In 1878, Saint Saens' personal life was collapsing around him. Besides being drained by the death of his loyal friend Liszt, his children were gone, and he was separated from his wife. Sad­dened by his grave sense of loss, which extended to his appar­ent disappointment In fully realizing his artistic potential, Saint ­Saens wrote one of his philosophical books, Problemes et Mys­teres, in which he professed, "People have always been disap­pointed in their search for final causes. It may be that there are no such things." It was an account of pessimism advocating that art and science would replace religion. It was also the time that he consented to begin his third and final symphony, which had been commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society, Re­ceiving a "thirty pound honorarium" for his efforts, Saint-Saens had previously played some of the ideas from the work for Liszt during their last visit in Paris. Saint-Saens wrote, " .. This imp of a symphony has gone up a half-tone; it didn't want to stay in B minor and is now in C minor It will be a treat for me to conduct it. Will it be a treat, though, for the people who hear it? ... "

The entrancing characteristics of this particular symphony, which set it apart from Saint-Saens numerous other works, are due to the brilliantly full orchestration, including the special fea­ture of the organ and two pianos. The "Organ" Symphony is in two parts, the first consists of an Allegro and Adagio, the sec­ond of a Scherzo and Finale. Considered the noblest form of instrumental music, the "symphony" had thoroughly been transformed by the great masters of the 19th century, The older symphonies by Haydn and Mozart usually were conceived in four movements: an Allegro (often preceded by a slow intro­duction), an Adagio, a Minuet, and a Finale. Beethoven intro­duced some changes, with the Scherzo substituting for the Minuet, and dramatically added the human voice to the orchestra. This signified the transition of the symphony, as it now be­came the vehicle through which composers could unveil the expression of feeling, rather than suit their music to the stan­dard patterns of a ready-made form. The romantic movement brought nationalistic, as well as descriptive, elements, and exot­ic realms of passion. Saint-Saens, fondness for Lisztian tech­niques of thematic transformation and harmony triggered his own imagination, as revealed in his symphonic poems and finally in his remarkable "Organ" Symphony, Saint-Saens demonstrated his clever craftsmanship in this mature symphonic display of tonal architecture, which provoked powerful emotions, anxiety and grave questioning in the first movement, and triumphant exuberance in the Finale.

Julie Jordan, pianist, is a candidate for the Doctor of Musi­cal Arts degree at the Manhattan School of Music. She received her Master of Music degree from the Juilliard School, where she is on the piano minor faculty.

Review of Saint Saen

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