Dans ton cœur [3'26]
Guitares et mandolines [1'38]
This issue in our French Song Edition is a single disc devoted to the songs of Camille Saint-Saëns, the composer of Carnival of the Animals, Danse Macabre and Samson and Dalila. During his long life (he lived to the age of eighty-six) he wrote a surprisingly large number of songs, few of which are well known. Here are twenty-seven of them. Saint-Saëns drew his texts from a wide variety of sources, old and new, including the greatest French writers of his time – Victor Hugo particularly. But, as Graham Johnson wittily says in his notes to the disc, 'they were all grist to Camille'.
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There is something inscrutable about the composerís gaze in the celebrated photograph by Nadar. He looks very much a figure of the Establishment (bearing an uncanny resemblance, despite the beard, to the former British Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington). Here he is at the greatest moment of fame, little dreaming that all too soon he was destined to become a footnote in French music, rather than the major chapter which he clearly thought his due. And somewhere in this expression of a grandee we can detect the heartbreak and sadness of a particularly lonely life. There is also a glint in the eye which suggests he is not to be trifled with: we would not dare to broach the subject of his private affairs with this touchy (and potentially vituperative) maÓtre. His many secrets are his own, and to this day no one knows the real Camille Saint-SaŽns. Perhaps as a result of this mask, fewer people today know his music. Obsessive privacy has a way of translating into anonymity, a quality which seeps into the compositions, and can render them all too easy to neglect. Not that all of Saint-SaŽns falls into this faceless category, for a great deal of the time he was capable of remarkable individuality. Who else could have written Le Carnaval des animaux, Samson et Dalila, and the Second Piano Concerto? And there is much else besides which is worthy of performance, including the songs on this disc which will hopefully add a further, if not radical, new dimension to the composer in the listenerís mind and ear. If Faurť is the ĎMaster of Charmsí, as Debussy called him, Saint-SaŽns is the ĎMaster of Disguisesí, and it is this which may perplex us when the innocent ear encounters these songs on the radio. ĎWho is this composer?í we ask ourselves, enjoying the music the while, and wondering at its ease and confidence. Saint-SaŽns responds so readily to his texts, and fits his music out with such appropriate and clever local colour, that we sometimes folget where, and who, its creator is.
After many years in the wilderness as far as the Parisian critics were concerned, Saint-SaŽns eventually reaped the rewards of a lifetimeís hard work and achieved great celebrity. Little by little, and then with the speed of the Wall Street Crash, his reputation declined. Composers of Poulencís generation dismissed him as a ranting old reactionary, and this is more or less what he had become by as early as 1913, his ex cathedra pronouncements embittered by loneliness and spleen. His posthumous reputation plummeted to such an extent that it has still not recovered. We await a new catalogue of Saint-SaŽnsí works and a biography in depth (both in preparation) which will take into account not only his many writings on music, but also the vast and fascinating correspondence. Whether this will restore him to the level of adored master that he enjoyed at the turn of the century is doubtful, but it should provoke a major reassessment of one of the most interesting musical personalities of the time. Who else could claim to have performed for the Citizen King, Louis-Philippe, at the Tuileries, and yet lived long enough to compose a chorus (Aux conquťrants de líair) in honour of Ďthose magnificent men in their flying machinesí, the brave airmen of the First World War and the Roaring Twenties?
The ĎInfant prodigy and Wunderkindí†1835Ė1853
His mother seems to have been rather a severe woman (judging from her portrait) who was determined that Camille was not to be spoiled by the usual adulation surrounding a child prodigy. On the other hand he did not enjoy the freedoms of a normal boyhood; all his teachers carne to the house, and his thin build and pale complexion were signs not only of his generally frail health, but of a child raised in a hothouse. In 1843 he was sent to study the piano with Camille Stamaty, pupil of Frťdťric Kalkbrenner, who in turn had studied with Haydn. By means of Kalkbrennerís patented hand-guide, an adjustable horizontal rail parallel to the piano on which the forearm rested, Saint-SaŽns was trained to have absolute independence of the fingers. These were astonishingly fleet (as we can hear on the few recordings he made as an old man), even if the playing was lacking in warmth of tone by the standards of the later nineteenth century. It seems to have been masterful and precise, almost free from extraneous rubato, the transparent jeu perlť of an earlier pianistic epoch, and utterly different from that of Liszt who was already an established virtuoso. On this disc, the song Tournoiement (track 15) from the Mťlodies Persanes perhaps best illustrates the sort of difficult accompaniment which Saint-SaŽns wrote from time to time to display his own technical accomplishment. He made his dťbut in 1846 at the Salle Pleyel performing, among other things, Mozartís Piano Concerto K450, and was duly hailed as a new Mozart.
One of the young Saint-SaŽnsí first set-backs was his failure to win the Prix de Rome in 1852. (He tried again, also unsuccessfully, twelve years later.) In December 1853, under the auspices of this society, Saint-SaŽnsí Symphony in E flat was announced as the work of an unknown German composer. It was received rapturously, and only then was its creatorís true identity revealed. Gounod, who had watched the young composerís development for a number of years, wrote Saint-SaŽns a generous letter which predicted that he would become a great composer. Rossini was also an admirer of Saint-SaŽnsí precocious talents, as was Berlioz who said with typical acuity ĎHe knows everything, but he lacks inexperienceí. Even at this early stage Saint-SaŽnsí formidable ability to manipulate the materials of music was seen to be at odds with the sheer quality of musical invention. Even then people noticed that his facility masked his human vulnerability, that indefinable quality which gives to music an unmistakable provenance.
It was during this period that Saint-SaŽns began his career as a teacher at the …cole Niedermeyer where he met the young Gabriel Faurť. A special bond of friendship was formed between the sixteen-year-old pupil and the professor who, after all, was only a decade older. It was thanks to Saint-SaŽns that Faurť first heard the works of Schumann, Liszt and Wagnerónot prescribed composers for students at a school which concentrated on church music. Faurť was to remain a lifelong friend, and his family was to be adopted by the older composer as his own in his later, lonely years.
In 1872 the composer had lost the woman who had first brought him to music, his great aunt Charlotte. He now lived alone with his mother, and up until 1875 we know almost nothing about his emotional life and his relationship to women. Madame Saint-SaŽns was a difficult character who kept such distractions away from her son. It is all the more strange then that the composer should decide to marry a nineteen-year-old girl, Marie-Laure-…milie Truffot, the sister of one of his school friends. Nothing is known about the background to this marriage, or why, for example, the ceremony took place far from Paris. Why was it that the composer seemed anxious to avoid the publicity? Was Madame Saint-SaŽns informed, or did he marry the girl without his motherís knowledge and to escape her influence? In any case, within a short time the married couple was living under the same roof as Madame Saint-SaŽns, and the seeds of the destruction for this fragile relationship (the bride was uninterested in music) were sown. The composerís mother was autocratic and exigent, and not only in personal matters; she seems to have remained Saint-SaŽnsí sternest musical critic, and it is known that he composed a new finale to the Cello Sonata in C minor because she was not satisfied with the first. Certainly there is no reason to suppose that she would have made an easy mother-in-law.
The composer had two sons from this marriage (born in 1875 and 1877). In late May 1878 the elder of the little boys, aged two-and-a-half, fell to his death from the balcony of the house in Paris. Six weeks later the second son perished as a result of pneumonia. It seems that Saint-SaŽns blamed his wife for both catastrophes. By 1881 the marriage was at an end. The composer simply walked out on his spouse when they were on holiday together; he left her a note saying that he would not return, and moved back to his mother. There is some parallel here with the behaviour of Paul Verlaine who had left his wife in a scandalous fashion a few years earlier, and whose choice of marriage partner had seemed peculiarly cavalier, quite apart from the fact that he was fundamentally unsuited to marriage. Saint-SaŽns did not let these events get in the way of his productivity. A great many first performances of new works were given at this time, almost all of them roundly damned by the Parisian critics. In Weimar Samson et Dalila (in German translation of course) had a triumphant success under the auspices of Liszt. It is astonishing that this work, certainly the best-known of all Saint-SaŽnsí stage works, should have had to wait fifteen years for a performance in Paris.
He was by now a feared critic, able to write polemical articles which seethed with anger and fury, and which recalled the acerbic literary style of Berlioz. He was also a respected scholar and editor, undertaking the preparation of a complete edition of Gluckís works. Gradually the tide of public opinion in France began to turn in favour of Saint-SaŽnsí music. If at long last he was no longer a prophet unappreciated in his own land, the troubling tide of modernity was beginning to wash over the composer just at the moment that his own music was being seriously countenanced by the French public. The Sociťtť Nationale was somewhat hijacked by Vincent díIndy and other Wagnerians who wanted to promote the performance of foreign musicóWagner above all. Saint-SaŽns left the society, and this period of ĎArs gallicaí was at an end. From now on, and increasingly, he began to have reservations about the Wagnerian passions of his younger colleagues.
One might have imagined that this state of affairs would have encouraged the composer to enjoy the fruits of his Parisian success and settle down in some splendour and comfort. But without his mother it seems it was impossible for him to establish a conventionally comfortable household. Without a home of his own he continued to be the most nomadic of all composers, living out of suitcases and composing in railway carnages and shipsí cabins. The extent of this wandering exceeded the composerís professional need for the itinerant life (to make money as a virtuoso): it became an end in itself, a flight from his memories and from his own ghosts. It is truly astonishing that he continued to write as much as he did, sending manuscripts back to his publishers in Paris. He was always accompanied by his pet dogs (the most famous of these was called Dalila and photographed by Nadar) and by his ever-faithful manservant Gabriel Geslin. Algeria and Egypt were favourite ports of call and this exotic travel is reflected often in the music. The Fifth Piano Concerto (1896) is known as the ĎEgyptianí and there were two huge works for orchestra, Suite Algťrienne and Africa. Of course Saint-SaŽnsí fondness for these sunny destinations (also Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Uruguay) was partly to do with his health. His weak chest made it necessary for him to seek out comfortable climates. But there was no doubt another agenda for his visits to North Africa, and one calls to mind many French visitors to those parts of the world (Pierre Louys, Flaubert, Gide among others) who were drawn there by the beauty of the inhabitants, and the air of sexual freedom so different from a Europe still reeling from the Oscar Wilde trial. In North Africa, compliant girls and boys were readily available to the well-to-do visitor, as well as older, more dominating paramours. It was thus far away from Paris that Saint-SaŽns made whatever arrangements were necessary to give him passing moments of happiness, illusions of intimacy, the coming-to-terms with love that had eluded him in the normal channels of life. The composer was said to have been one of Proustís models for the notorious Baron Charlus in ņ la recherche du temps perdu.
There is no doubt that the composer was slowly winding down, in both his composing and playing. Nevertheless he displayed reserves of energy and will-power that astounded his peers. He occupied himself with turning the outdoor spectacle Dťjanire into an opera for Monte Carlo, and travelled to London to play the complete Mozart piano concertos. His name is a footnote in the history of cinema by being the first to compose a score for moving pictures. This was for the silent film LíAssassinat du Duc de Guise made by Henri Lavedan, Andrť Calmette and Charles le Bargy in 1908.
World War and Death†1914Ė1921
Camille Saint-SaŽns died in his beloved Algiers where he went on holiday after giving a concert in Dieppe, which he somehow knew would be his last in that town. He contracted pneumonia and was too weak to shake off the infection. He died on 16 December in 1921. His remains were brought back to Paris where there was a service at the Madeleine where he had been organist for so long. After a state funeral he was buried at the cemetery of Montparnasse.
The man and the songs
There was a great deal about Saint-SaŽns which remained a big baby, childish despite his white beard and lofty air of a grand maÓtre. His rages and petulant outbursts (both in the press and in his private life) were probably little different to his fury when his great aunt attempted to remove him from the piano at three-and-a-half. It is unlikely that he ever had a mature love affair, and at times he seems to have been utterly impervious to the misfortunes that befell him (particularly in terms of his failure, for years on end, with the French critics). It is all as if he was safely protected in the fortress of a motherís love where no one ever ages but where one runs the risk of perishing in other ways. After the death of his sons he returned to his mother, abandoning his wife as if she had never existed. If we accept that there was a part of his psyche that lived in Never Never Land and that we should not attempt to look in his work for the insights of those who submit to the ageing processes of the real world, there is much to recommend this music. Indeed the boyishness of Saint-SaŽns is one of his special strengths. There are many things worse than the imaginative fantasy of a child, the energy of perpetual youth, and the ability to dress up in brilliant fancy dress at the drop of a hat. And of course the mastery of the medium of song is astonishing, where everything is so well written for the voice, and where the accompaniments (demanding though some of them are) are always interesting and grateful. In this respect he was the seasoned professional, merciless in his attitude to the slipshod, anything but child-like.
Graham Johnson © 1997
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