His unusually long life and great productivity led to the unusual circumstance of the development of his genius during his lifetime. He did not belong to the pathetic band of pioneers, in the history of the arts and sciences, whose mortal span fell short of the length of their spiritual missions, and whose ideas have consequently had to be completed by other minds. “” watson lyle, Camille Saint-Saëns: His Life and Art
indeed nothing i’ve read about saint-saëns describes him as anything of that pioneer-type; the type continuously ‘venting their spleen’, the consumptive type with their figurative candles oozing at both ends. (you can’t maintain that type for far too long). only very recently have i learned—and even more recently: appreciated—another species of genius that is altogether the much more prevalent kind. it’s a slow, imperceptible, discreet, evergreen kind of genius. it is the more robust kind, the opaque and barrel-chested sort. the sort for whom words like ‘portly’ and ‘rotund’ once had any meaning. it’s the sort of genius that is precisely the opposite of those whose ‘genius’ has made gaunt from fidgeting, made translucent from sleeplessness—a bestseller written in the latter half of the nineteenth century presupposed this type as it’s main character—consequently it is the type i’ve come to recognize as the abbreviated caricature of the genius, as a result of a brief but intense diet of mid twentieth-century french films. robert bresson, for example, made his name casting the physical manifestations of this type—Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956) Pickpocket (1959)...
no, saint-saëns was not that type but much more of the slow and rotund creative, whose output and longevity in accumulation, burns twice as intensely as a sleepless and sweaty-spleened chopin (or the birth-pangs that accompanied every one of our dear Nietzsche’s migraine-induced ideations).
—no, these two concertos are the work of a composer in no particular hurry, whose art has been inspired by devotion instead of intoxication. there seems very little of a ‘spiritual mission’ but instead a well graduated pipette of musical ideas interrupted occasionally by what was then referred to as ‘exotic accents’—minor deviations from the inexorable instinct of a keen and steady-handed artistry…
Occasionally one encounters patches of exotic colour in his scores that are blended into the prevailing scheme with a skill that unifies them to it, like a thicket of rhododendrons blooming in a semi-wild luxuriance amid sombre conifers in a Scottish Highland glen. “” watson lyle, Camille Saint-Saëns: His Life and Art
yes, absolutely—minus all that rhododendrons shit…
Saga Records Limited. Printed in London // Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) // Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor Op.22 & No.5 in F major Op. 103 //
Vienna Symphony Orchestra // conducted by Hans Swarowsky, Orazio Frugoni on Piano
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor:
Andante Sustenuto (walking pace (76–108 bpm))
Allegro Scherzando (playful, light-hearted)
Presto (quick tempo)
Piano Concerto No.5 in F major Op. 103
Allegro animato (excited and animated—lit)
Andante (moderately slow)
Molto Allegro (very swift)
The concerto opens Andante sostenuto and the solo instrument soon announced the chief theme, which receives some florid development. An episodic theme is expounded by the piano and the pace quickens. The orchestral strings takes up theme, against which the soloist indulges in some decorative counterpoint. A carenza follows, and finally the coda, which presents the movement’s introductory bars against a string background. “” frederick youens, notes for the recording
(Cheiknah Demba — toumani diabate)———
A mannerism, partly of Liszt and partly of Chopin, sometimes obtrudes in the piano concertos. A broad melody in octaves, for right hand, may be accompanied by flowing arpeggi for left hand, with, or without, orchestral support. Typical examples of this occur in the second movement of the Fifth Piano Concerto, in the first movement of the Second Piano Concerto, and in the First Sonata for violoncello and piano. “” watson lyle, Camille Saint-Saëns: His Life and Art
of those aforementioned ‘patches of exotic colour’ perhaps the most colourful stretch in these two concertos is to be found in the most unexpected moment of clairvoyance that drifts into view in the bottom third of the second movement of the fifth piano concerto: it begins at the 6:50 minute mark and ends at the 7:30 minute mark of the following recording—
In the second movement the composer sets out his impression of the Nile. An irregular rhythmic figure suggests the hubbub during the preparations for sailing, above which is heard the shrill melodies of arab carriers. The boat moves above calm waters, and a distant plaintive air is heard. The boatmen sing a barcarolle, a cantabile melody in 2/4 over an arpeggio accompaniment; a little later the movement of the boat’s propeller is suggested. “” frederick youens, notes for the recording
there’s something of a slow gyration to that melody. as if after a prolonged searching journey, we arrive at a glade—a suspended moment of clarity—and the rhythmic pulsation of the piano becomes a foundation upon which this slow whirling dervish levitates. it is a melody that isn’t exactly native to the western classical traditions. it is moreso of that ‘exotic’ colouring, that eastern melodic accent—but it there is also something african in the accent of the melody. in that respect i’m reminded of a piece by toumani diabaté—a kora player from mali—called Cheiknah Demba. i’ve been of late addicted to the melody that introduces the song, and the rhythm that evolves from that melody:
there’s an automatic joy that is ignited every time i hear it, without exception. the sensation is a rapturous and flushed intoxication expressed not by exaggerated and flamboyant gestures but by the mimation of the subtlest instinct for elation, inconsolable delight, a vibrating ecstasy—a slow, wide gyre. take note of the eerie similarity between this song and the aforementioned 30-second excerpt from the second movement of the piano concerto #5.
(program music)———that is, as opposed to absolute music: music without some external, independent narrative context; behind which the music trails, and even further behind: the audience…
Liszt’s influence is still more noticeable in the symphonic poem, “Danse Macabre,” and in the last of the piano concertos, although, considered as a whole, that work is thoroughly representative of Saint-Saëns’ style in programme music. “” watson lyle, Camille Saint-Saëns: His Life and Art
with the exception of berlioz—a contemporary of saint-saëns—perhaps there is no other composer in this collection who has achieved more with program music than saint-saëns. his Danse Macabre is exactly the kind of evocative power that program music has over absolute music—everywhere in that piece there is a precipice, a dangerous wager, the excitement of tremendous heights and unbearable proximities to a devilish possession; it is the ride of the valkyries for those of us not yet convinced of wagner….
Saint-Saëns was, however, happiest and most successful when concerned with subtle hints of “atmosphere” in his programme music. “” watson lyle, Camille Saint-Saëns: His Life and Art
as much as his symphonies (no.3 especially) and symphonic poems were capable of the most explosive and impassioned climaxes, he was above all a musician for the subtlest hues and nuances in colour. his compilation of Carnival of the Animals (another fantastic example of his catalogue of program music) includes one of the most profound intimations of weightlessness and tranquility i’ve ever heard: The Swan—