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Composer of the month #11
October 30th, 2020
Each month, we celebrate a famous composer who imposed their mark on classical music history. In these interviews, they talk about their work and history, and offer you free sheet music of some of their most iconic pieces for your Newzik library! What a nice thought. This month, we're proud to receive French composer Camille Saint-Saëns who didn't really like that we talked about The Carnival of the Animals...
Camille was kind enough to prepare a complete setlist for Newzik's subscribers, with all the music we discussed with him. If you are already a Newzik Premium subscriber, go ahead and download it right away!
If you are a free user, choose only the parts you want later in the interview (mind the 15-file import limit of your free account). Subscribe to Newzik for unlimited import! Finally, in case you’re not a Newzician yet, get Newzik for free on the App Store to download these free scores from Claude Debussy!
People keep telling me about this cursed piece. Everywhere I go, it's all about the Carnival of the Animals! It's been years since I banned its public performance, it's time to move on. And then, as you know very well, I wrote this play as a joke, for Mardi Gras, so I'll ask you to stay focused. I'm not here to talk about compositions that I could have written on the back of a restaurant napkin.
Royal March of the Lion
I was a promising boy, yes. I was raised by my mother and my aunt and I first learned to play the piano with her. I remember my first concert: I was 11 years old and it was at the Pleyel Hall, in Paris. I played a Beethoven concerto and a Mozart concerto. I had enjoyed myself, I had even written my own cadenza for Mozart's piece! I also played from memory, without sheet music, unlike the majority of musicians at the time.
I had made a name for myself with this little concert! A few years later I entered the Paris Conservatory, in 1848. There I studied the organ and composition. But, you see, there are other things in life besides music. I also studied astronomy, philosophy, mathematics, History. By the way, I haven't only written books about music! If you had done your job as a journalist well, you would know that I have written about Greco-Latin archaeology, about astronomy, I have even written verses and comedies. But hey, you’d rather talk to me about the Carnival of the Animals, don't you ?
To be honest with you, music remained my main occupation. One of my great regrets at the time, by the way, was not winning the Prix de Rome. It's more a question of ego than anything else, I was already becoming famous with pieces like the Urbs Roma Symphony (1854) or the Piano Quintet (1854). I didn't really need these fancy titles, I was already frequenting the “musical Paris” and I was already a friend of Berlioz, Gounod and Rossini. Moreover, for the record, one day while I was improvising on the organ of the Madeleine Church, Franz Liszt heard me and became my friend. He considered me the best organist in the world.
Samson & Dalila, Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix
Samson & Dalila is Saint-Saëns' only opera in the repertoire. He wrote a dozen other lyrical works, very rarely performed and recorded, sometimes completely forgotten.
This opera, as its name suggests, tells the biblical episode of Samson's seduction by Dalila, taken from the Book of Judges. We propose here to (re)discover an emblematic melody from the work, entitled Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix (My Heart opens itself to your voice). In the context of the opera, Samson, torn between his fight to free the Hebrews from the Philistines and his love for Delilah, has just confessed his feelings to her after she sang "I love you" to him. The melody of Delilah begins with a sweet confession before a request to Samson: "Answer my tenderness" on which the harp enters.
This melody is typical of this opera: a subtle alliance of different styles. The beginning of the piece is marked by traditional and western-style triads, which little by little undergo discreet alterations, transforming the melody into an Arab melism, before returning to the western style in a finale marked by a powerful "Ah! Pour-moi l'ivresse" ("Fill me with ecstasy").
This famous piece, of which we propose you an arrangement for violin and piano, has crossed the decades and remains today one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. There are countless references and tributes made to this true jewel: it can even be found at the end of the song I Belong To You by the pop band Muse.
Are you aware that in the Carnival of the Animals there is the theme of a childish nursery rhyme? I think I will have to repeat it until I die: it is not a serious work! I wanted to entertain the gallery, nothing more!
Let me go back to the 1860s.
In 1860, my glory was infinite. I wasn't even thirty years old when everyone was talking about me! I was a piano teacher at the Niedermeyer School. I was the teacher of Gabriel Fauré, who also became my friend. I wrote symphonies, I wrote my first piano and violin concertos. I was a committed artist! I stood up for Wagner. I conducted Liszt's symphonic poems that were performed for the first time in France, when he wasn’t famous.
Then in the 1870s, I was the first Frenchman to compose symphonic poems, a major genre of Romanticism. My influences were Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner or Liszt... I admired Berlioz! Everyone saw me as the heir of the Romantic style.
If I tell you all this, you can imagine that it's because everything has changed. You may be a mediocre journalist, but you know what happened in 1870. The war. I was in the 4th Battalion of the National Guard. I fought for my country! On January 19th, 1871, during the battle of Buzenval, the Germans killed the painter, singer, my dear friend Henri Regnault.
Danse Macabre (Dance of Death)
The Danse Macabre is a symphonic poem in G minor composed in 1874, based on the poem Equality-Fraternity by Henri Cazalis. The legend says that the premiere of this piece was a disaster, that the work was whistled, but this is false: the first representation in Column was encored.
Like in the Carnival of the Animals, each instrument used has an almost theatrical role to play. Twelve blows of the harp at the beginning mark the twelve blows of midnight. The pizzicati of the strings evokes death tapping its heel to wake the dead. On the violin we hear the Diabolus in musica, the name attributed by Guido d'Arezzo to the diminished fifth (here A - E flat). In the xylophone we recognize the sound of dancing and clanging bones.
There are three main themes. The first, on the flute, is rhythmic ; the second, on the violin, is melodic. The third features the trumpet supported by cymbals, quoting the beginning of the Dies Irae but transposed into major, which sounds rather odd. One could see infernal spirits mocking this phrase taken from the liturgy of the dead.
Once again, this is an absolutely major piece of classical music that has survived the ages and that can be found in many other contexts, for instance in the cinema.
Characters with long ears
It is true that this period has been a turning point in my life as a committed artist. With the events related to the Paris Commune, I fled to England to join my friends Charles Gounod and Pauline Viardot. It was the opportunity to attend the performance of a cantata by Gounod - Gallia. The same evening, we heard an overture by the German Ferdinand Hiller. The cantata was a huge success, the overture wasn’t! "France is avenged!" I said to my mother in a letter.
Back in France, I created the National Music Society, with Romain Bussine. French concert societies never run out of praise for German music, but French music is always shamefully sulked - it's wholly inadmissible! I love my homeland and I love the music of my homeland, and I will fight until my death to give it back the prestige it deserves. I was mistaken about Wagner: his music has nothing to envy to that of his foreign colleagues - it is mediocre at best. You can therefore imagine that my friendship with Franz Liszt is no longer relevant.
Faced with this invasion, then faced with the stupid compositions of the new generation (Debussy, Strauss, Dukas), I advocated traditional music, the real thing. Bach, Handel, and especially Rameau. When you have these three, why would you want to write anything else?
String Quartet No 1 in E minor
The String Quartet No. 1 in E minor was composed in 1899 and premiered on December 21st of the same year. It is dedicated to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. At the age of 64, Saint-Saëns was already known as a defender of traditional music. However, this work is far from being as dogmatic or as smooth as this genre can be. On the contrary, we are struck by the unexpected forms, the mobility of ideas. The sonorities are sometimes impressionistic and the composer turns his back on the Beethovenian model of the equality of desks as the first violin is very often dominant. Far from the post-Wagnerian chromatic complications, the harmonic language, always limpid, is rich in fleeting ambiguities. A work unfairly forgotten in the repertoire of Camille Saint-Saëns, yet a witness to his genius.
How stubborn you are! I told you I won't talk about the Carnival of the Animals. This great zoological fantasy is nothing in my whole career! The same year I wrote my Third Symphony, my masterpiece, the pinnacle of my glory! And you would like me to talk about a little junk composition?
I am sometimes criticized for my patriotism, or my hostility towards the music of the younger generations. However, it must be said that the critics proved me right. In spite of some failures (I won't go back over the dreadful masquerade that was The Yellow Princess), I was a mastodon of musical composition! Between Samson and Delilah and my Third Symphony, my fame was immense. In France I was President of the Academy of Fine Arts and Knight of the Legion of Honor, in England I was Doctor honoris causa of the University of Cambridge in 1893 and of the University of Oxford in 1907. I toured triumphantly in the United States, I even composed the national anthem of Uruguay!
Now you want to talk about my marriage? Well, since you insist on missing the point, I guess I can tell you about it - it will be rather quick. In 1875 I married Marie-Laura Truffot. I was not very attached to this "love" story, I devoted myself mainly to music - we didn't even go on a honeymoon. I had two children with her. The first, André, fell from the balcony of our apartment at the age of two and a half, in 1878. Marie-Laure, no longer able to breastfeed the second, Jean-François, took him to a nurse in the country. My second child died a few months later, probably from pneumonia. After years of growing estrangement, I separated from my wife, without even bothering to get a divorce. You will therefore understand why I attach very little importance to this story and the misfortune it brought me.
Romance sans paroles (Wordless Romance)
Among the 420 pieces written by Camille Saint-Saëns, he wrote only one Romance sans paroles. This work, composed in 1871 and published in 1903, is constructed in the traditional ternary form: A-B-A' with a short coda. The coda, although short, is a rather interesting part of this piece.
Conventionally, the coda takes up elements that appeared previously and solves them in order to close the piece. Here, the coda does not take up at all the previous melodic elements but has a very particular character made up of ascending figures.
This short and pretty piece is within the reach of amateur pianists and young students. Be careful, however, because the writing itself may be an issue: you must always keep continuity in the phrasing, even if there are big jumps between chords!
Yes, well, The Swan may be the only thing worth listening to in The Carnival of the Animals. Besides, it is the only piece of which I have authorized the performance. It's quite amusing how this piece has become a reference for cellists. It's nice, but I don't find it transcendent, but if cellists find it to their liking, so much the better.
At the end of the 19th century I was tireless! I traveled a lot and I took part in many original projects, while continuing to compose. I restored pieces by Lully and Marc-Antoine Charpentier for plays by Molière, I composed for Sophocles' Antigone and for all kinds of plays, I founded a music festival in Béziers... I was still in great shape. I was even the first great composer to write music for a movie: The Assassination of the Duke of Guise in 1908. My time was essentially divided between my music and my travels. People believed I was immortal: I went on an incredibly succesful tour in the United States when I was 80 years old. While my homeland grew tired of my music and preferred the absurd new generation, the english-speaking countries kept praising me. I have written no less than 420 pieces throughout my life, and yet I am considered in France as a witness of the old time. As long as I can stand on my two legs, I will continue to play! I am 86 years old this year, and I don't intend to retire. Next week I'm celebrating in Dieppe the 75th anniversary of my first concert.
I have been fighting for traditional music for fifty years now and perhaps I am its last guardian. Maybe I'm right, but everything seems to prove me wrong. It's too late now, at my age I can only hope for one thing: that in a hundred years, I'll be remembered for more than the Carnival of the Animals.
Camille Saint-Saëns died a few months after his last concert in Dieppe, at the age of 86. According to the legend, he would have pronounced the following words before he died: "This time, I think it's really the end”. A state funeral was organized at the Madeleine Church for the last representative of 19th century music. If Camille Saint-Saëns is known for his exacerbated patriotism and nationalism, he is also one of the greatest French composers. His influence on the composers who succeeded him was essential, and this up to Maurice Ravel. We still hear him today in many contexts. One of the famous occurrences of his music is "Aquarium", the seventh movement of the Carnival of the Animals which is played before every screening at the Cannes Film Festival.
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