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Hyperion Records

CDA67713 - Saint-Saëns: Organ Music, Vol. 1 – La Madeleine, Paris
Interior of La Madeleine, Paris by Philippe Benoist (1813-c1905)
Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée Carnavalet, Paris / Lauros / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: September 2004
La Madeleine, Paris, France
Produced by Dick Koomans
Engineered by Dick Koomans
Release date: July 2008
Total duration: 78 minutes 19 seconds

'Saint-Saëns has an originality and charm all his own … Smith's warm and sympathetic rubato is a consistent delight, and his inspired choice to make the recording on an instrument played regularly by Saint-Saëns means that listeners can relish the authentic Gallic tones of the splendid La Madeleine organ' (Gramophone)

'Andrew-John Smith's reappraisal of Saint-Saëns' organ works is a real winner. The Trios Préludes et Fugues, three Fantasies and other works are performed with great sensitivity on the organ of the Madeleine … these pieces illustrate a remarkable synthesis of beauty and structure from France's most outstanding composer of the 19th century' (Choir & Organ)

'The charm and elegance of these preludes, fugues and fantasies … brilliantly played by the hugely talented Smith on the great Cavaillé-Coll instrument that Saint-Saëns knew' (The Observer)

'There are magical moments aplenty here … Smith is in a class of his own when it comes to compelling performances of these pieces. They are by far and away the best recordings of Saint-Saëns' organ music since Daniel Roth's three LP-set in 1982 … deeply compelling in their interpretative ardour and musical insight. What's more, there's even a touch of true flamboyance … any composer of integrity, neglected or otherwise, should be profoundly grateful for such compelling and persuasive advocacy as this' (International Record Review)

'The excellent performances apart, the main selling point of this disc is the opportunity to hear some of Saint-Saëns's organ works played on the very instrument for which they were composed—the magnificent Cavaillé-Col at La Madeleine, Paris … performed with flair and sensitivity by Smith who also contributes the excellent booklet notes' (Classic FM Magazine)

Organ Music, Vol. 1 – La Madeleine, Paris
Prelude  [2'08]
Fugue  [5'00]
Prelude  [4'40]
Fugue  [6'09]
Prelude  [4'39]
Fugue  [3'19]

Despite his modern fame, much of Saint-Saëns’s music was under-appreciated in his lifetime, and many of his organ works remain little known. His adherence to Classical principles—enshrined in the works of his idols Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn—and his antipathy towards what he perceived as the louche modernism of the Romantic movement hardly endeared him to congregations or clergy, long gorged on the fripperies offered by contemporary organists and somewhat resistant to being ‘told what was good for them’.

But as a performer his prodigious talent could not be ignored and by 1858, aged just twenty-three, he found himself at the console of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll’s brand-new organ at La Madeleine in Paris—four manuals, 48 stops and an unprecendented symphonic wall of sound lay at his disposal. (He also found the instrument, occupying the entire West wall of this enormous edifice, spacious enough to accommodate a constant stream of stars from the international musical firmament, including Liszt, Sarasate, Clara Schumann and Anton Rubinstein.) He was to hold the post for some twenty years.

The earliest works in Andrew-John Smith’s programme were composed during Saint-Saëns’s tenure at La Madeleine and it is a rare delight to be able to hear them performed on the organ the composer knew and so loved (and using only the registrations available to him at the time). For later compositions Smith employs some of the subsequent additions to Cavaillé-Coll’s original conception; the effects are thrilling and reflect contemporary reports of Saint-Saëns’s own performance practice—much of it unusual then and now—as his travels took him around France playing Cavaillé-Coll’s ever-more gargantuan organistic creations.

The English organist and conductor Andrew-John Smith was educated as an organ scholar at New College, Oxford and the Sweelinck Conservatorium, Amsterdam. Described by Choir & Organ magazine as ‘a rare pleasure in Britain’ he performs regularly in Europe and has recorded and broadcast as soloist and accompanist both for the BBC and abroad. A Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, he has been a finalist for the Grand Prix de Chartres, and a prize-winner at the Royal College of Organists’ ‘Performer of the Year’ and the St Albans’ International Organ Festival. This is his first recording for Hyperion.

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Music lends itself wonderfully to expression, and that is what the amateur would expect … it is quite different for the artist (Camille Saint-Saëns)

Stephen Studd’s claim that Saint-Saëns’ fall from grace ‘was to be one of the most spectacular in musical history’ is one with which few would disagree, especially considering the height from which he fell. Only nine years after his death in 1930 Dandelot wrote of the ‘unjust and exaggerated disfavour’ into which his work had fallen, and in 1935 Hahn was able to comment that ‘for fifteen years he has been walled up in silence as though we were ashamed of him’. There are various reasons for this, not all of them musical and many entirely unjustified. Despite occasional attempts to rectify the situation Saint-Saëns remains a most misunderstood composer of whose many qualities the time has surely come for a serious reappraisal.

Born in 1835, just eight years after the death of Beethoven, and dying after the First World War in 1921 Saint-Saëns saw many changes during his long life, some of which he embraced more readily than others. Up until the 1880s he was considered very modern, at times offensively so, but his adherence to classical principles and his clear conception of the parameters within which all art should function meant that during his later years he was increasingly considered old fashioned. The fervour with which he argued his cause in this regard went a considerable distance towards sealing the fate of his reputation. During the twentieth century many composers eschewed the subservience of logic to expression. Saint-Saëns did so at the height of romanticism and earned mistrust, and occasionally outright hostility, from some of his colleagues. Saint-Saëns argued, like the Parnassians he so admired, that ‘art is form above all else’. He did not argue that music should have no emotion but rather that this was the ‘right’ of a composer not a ‘responsibility’. Many have inferred from this a total absence of emotion in his music which is not the case, or indeed the point. These views are ultimately philosophical, not musical, but since they diverge so radically from the prevailing aesthetic of his day it is perhaps unsurprising that he was misunderstood.

Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy and gave his first concert as a pianist in 1846 at the Salle Pleyel. On this occasion he performed concertos by Mozart and Beethoven, a Bach Prelude and Fugue and works by Handel and Kalkbrenner. Not only did he perform without reference to scores but for an encore he invited the audience to choose any one of the thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas which he had also committed to memory! It is easy to see how such a precocious talent came to be compared from an early age with that of Mozart whose music he adored, along with Bach, Haydn, Schubert and Mendelssohn. This list is revealingly conservative and Reynaldo Hahn and Alfred Bruneau were not alone in describing him as ‘musical art’s last great classicist’. Saint-Saëns himself later recollected how ‘everything in my youth seemed calculated to keep me far removed from romanticism’. However, despite his continued promotion of German composers such as these throughout the nineteenth century he was fiercely patriotic and spent a great deal of time and effort in the cause of French art. To this end he became a founding member of the Société Nationale in February 1871 which, under its motto ars gallica, set about the promotion of French music and the establishment of a national style in those difficult years that followed the Franco-Prussian war. Indeed Saint-Saëns the conservative was paradoxically also a great innovator. He was one of the first significant composers to write solo music for the harmonium, and was amongst the first French composers of the nineteenth century to write chamber music. Credited with almost single-handedly developing the solo concerto in France, he was also one of the first to incorporate genuine Arabic melodies into his scores (such as those in Samson et Dalila, or the Suite algérienne, Op 60). In 1908 he became the first notable composer to write a film score with L’assassinat du Duc de Guise, Op 128, and whilst his appreciation of early music can be considered unusual in France, his remarks pertaining to performance practice were undeniably way ahead of their time.

Saint-Saëns was also a remarkable, largely self-taught polymath and the list of his interests and achievements is as wide ranging as his career. It varies from astronomy, geology, archaeology, history, sculpture, painting and mathematics to anthropology, zoology, animal welfare and travel.

Even if occasionally he had to wait longer than he would have liked, his efforts in all spheres did not go unrewarded. He was made a member of the German Association of Musicians, a Grand Officer of the Légion d’honneur and a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He was also awarded the German Order of Merit, an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University, was made a Commander of the Victorian Order, and even had a museum devoted to him in Dieppe.

Given such undeniable success it seems all the more remarkable that Saint-Saëns became so marginalized both by his peers and by history. Certainly his aesthetics were often not those of his age but this alone is not sufficient to explain the wilful neglect he has received. The reasons for this may well have more to do with personality than with music. It is true that he experienced at times a ‘sea of injustice’ in his struggles to stage his dramatic works and the scandalous duplicity surrounding the cantata competition of 1867 in particular. The mistrust of institutions this engendered might have been a very healthy one though had he not remained so desperate for their approval. He suffered almost constant ill health and the deaths of close friends, his children and his mother left him in a depression causing insomnia, an inability to work and, at times, contemplating suicide. Today he would doubtless have been medicated. As it was he didn’t always behave in his own best interests, and his career and reputation would doubtless have been better served had he left many opinions unvoiced. Had he not criticized the formation of orchestral unions, for instance, the players might not have refused to play his music! Unfortunately history has chosen those occasions on which he was rude, opinionated or abrupt by which to remember him, overlooking those not infrequent instances of great benevolence. There are numerous examples of his not only encouraging the performance of younger composers’ works but also of his using influence to secure appointments or introductions for them. Henri Malherbe claimed to know personally at least two organists whose rent was paid by Saint-Saëns after they lost their jobs following the 1903 Moto Proprio of Pius X. This is clearly not the man that Martin Cooper described as ‘full of years and malice’.

In the current climate of objective musicology it can only be hoped that Saint-Saëns’ music will finally be appreciated for what it is and not what it stands for, or worse still, what others have chosen it to stand for.

Rollin Smith has observed that from Saint-Saëns’ very first biographer, Jean Bonnerot, writing in 1922, the composer’s relationship to the organ has been almost entirely ignored. Most discussion of nineteenth-century French organ culture has concentrated, with good reason, on the decadence of the early years of that century and the renaissance that followed Lemmens’ first visit to Paris in 1852. Saint-Saëns’ contribution does not lie in either field and so, as with so much else of his work, has been overlooked. He was, however, the significant figure in the transition between the two and thus helped to transform the status of the organ in France.

That there was a cultural crisis in French organ lofts in the years following the revolution is clear. ‘It is a sad fact, but we must face it’, read an 1838 review in Revue Musicale: ‘organ playing is in utter decadence today’. There are numerous accounts of the poor taste and low standards to which organists had stooped. As Italian opera became the staple diet of the concert-going public congregations expected the same. Organists could regularly be heard playing drinking or hunting songs, waltzes and arias, often at the express instruction of their clergy. Montalembert wrote in 1839 that ‘there was nothing more grotesque or irreligious than the practices of the Parisian organist’. In fairness to the organists of the day, the instruments they were faced with were by then in varying states of disrepair. Mendelssohn visiting Saint-Sulpice in 1832 wrote that the organ ‘sounded like a full chorus of old women’s voices … but they maintain that it is the finest organ in Europe if it were put in to proper order, which would cost 30,000 Fr’. From his first completed organ in 1838 and for the next sixty years many of these old instruments were either rebuilt or replaced by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll with whose name French organ culture remains inextricably linked. He very quickly established his new concept of the ‘symphonic’ organ with characteristics that we have come to associate with French instruments of the period. An abundance of unison stops, high pressure reeds, harmonic stops, combination pedals and the boite expressif all contribute to a new sound world which, Saint-Saëns argued, required a new music.

As a young student Saint-Saëns was largely influenced by earlier instruments and the music which had been written for them. His early piano studies were with Camille Stamaty who taught Kalkbrenner’s technique of control, precision, strength and the minimal movement more readily associated with the harpsichord than the emerging modern piano. Similarly his first organ studies were with the classically minded Alexandre Boëly who presided over the 1771, four-manual Clicquot organ at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois. Boëly was something of a Bach specialist, a rarity in France at this time, and had fitted a German pedal board in 1838 for the performance of his music. When in 1853, aged only seventeen, Saint-Saëns was appointed organist at Saint-Merri he found there also a four-manual Clicquot, built in 1791 and now much in need of repair. The restoration was finished in 1857 and incorporated many of the modernizations we have come to associate with Cavaillé-Coll. It was surely an unusual appreciation of historical value however that led the organist to ask for the mutations of the positif and the cornet of the grand orgue to be left alone, ‘without which the instrument would certainly have lost its couleur ancienne at the hands of the modern builder’ (Norbert Duforcq).

When Saint-Saëns moved to La Madeleine the following year it was to one of the most prestigious positions in Paris and Cavaillé-Coll’s largest instrument to date that he went. In contrast to the instruments he had known earlier, the four-manual, forty-eight-stop organ that he found there had been built new in 1846. Most notable were its almost total lack of mutation stops and phenomenal power. We know that Cavaillé-Coll was pleased with the instrument and that Saint-Saëns was a great admirer of the ‘new possibilities’ that his work opened up. Franz Liszt, Robert Franz, Pablo Sarasate, Anton Rubinstein and Clara Schumann were among the many distinguished guests that came from all over the world to visit him in the organ loft, but despite the prestige and security it provided him Smith has observed that ‘there was little romance connected with the honour of being organiste titulaire du grand orgue, and the artistic satisfaction gained from providing musical ‘interruption’ was slight indeed’. Saint-Saëns was neither the first nor the last musician to find frustration and misery working in the church and by the time he tendered his resignation in April 1877 both his faith and his good will had been considerably eroded. Religion is ‘the poison of falsehood’ he wrote; ‘it takes for its ideal an impossible rapture, falsifying nature and simple happiness’. One of the recurring issues was Saint-Saëns’ refusal to embrace the poor taste which the parishioners and clergy had so admired in his predecessor, Lefébure-Wély. His belief that both clergy and public needed protection from their own ignorance may not have won him many friends but his uncompromisingly high standards set a new benchmark for French church music. He clearly took his role as the official organist of the Société Académique de Musique Sacrée seriously.

Whilst Widor, Vierne and Dupré all studied the new methods of Lemmens, Saint-Saëns’ technique was, like so much in his life, the result of a far more classical outlook. He continued, for example, to pedal using only toes long after the use of heels had become commonplace. His registrations, according to Jean Huré and Alexandre Cellier amongst others, were reminiscent of the classical masters; ‘the charm of a nasard combined with a gambe or bourdon, a cornet solo, a grosse quinte or a carillon in the pedal and a récit de tierce en taille or en dessus’ (Huré). Liszt however was not alone in describing his style as ‘orchestral’ and it seems credible to suggest that he was simply discerning and unusually willing to use each instrument for its strengths. In response to a London critic’s objection that he used too many orchestral effects he replied that the organ evolves with each generation and so does the music written for it. He compared this development with that of the harpsichord to the piano and implied further that each instrument must be treated differently. Fugues he says are more suitable for those organs where the sound is clear and intelligible than for the ‘modern’ instrument. If performed on the latter it will be necessary therefore to register them very differently. He even suggests that if we don’t like this we should blame the organ builders who have given us the instruments that need to be played this way! Even today this view can be considered enlightened and it flies in the face of both classical French practice and the symphonic tradition.

Insofar as such accounts can be trusted—it should be remembered that such information nearly always tells us more about the source than the subject—his playing was dignified, tasteful and controlled. Writing for La Revue et Gazette Musicale in 1844 Henri Blanchard wrote of the young pianist: ‘His slight alterations of tempo are always felicitous and come from a musical feeling that is inborn … expressiveness without mannerism.’ Over sixty years later Louis Kelterborn commented on a performance in Basel that it was ‘elegant and graceful yet always virile, absolutely free from sentimentality and an excess of rubato, which so many modern virtuosi seem to hold indispensable for an exhibition of ‘taste of feeling’’. Eloy de Stoklin in Le Ménestrel spoke of a performance ‘full of taste and moderation, controlled emotion and magisterial simplicity’. This was by no means to everyone’s liking and there exist numerous examples too of reviewers who found his playing dry and emotionless. Whereas Studd has argued from such reports that the ‘expressive quality’ demonstrated in his youth ‘had all but disappeared’ later on, it should be recognized that such criticisms only tell us how his performances compared with the expectation of them.

In the same way we can learn something of him by what he said of others. He complained of the ‘perpetual legato, so false and monotonous’ and of ‘abuse of small nuances’ and perhaps most significantly ‘continual expression applied without discernment’. On Chopin’s playing he spoke of the ‘maintaining of the beat in the accompaniment of rubato’ and affirmed it to be ‘as far removed from any show of bad taste as it is from cold bitterness’. As a youth Saint-Saëns had been forbidden by Stamaty from going to hear Chopin play for fear that he would be influenced by this control and understatement and so reject the excessive displays of expression which he had been encouraged to develop. Saint-Saëns went anyway and Stamaty’s fears proved founded.

During his years at La Madeleine Saint-Saëns almost always improvised and as a consequence perhaps there are fewer organ works from this period than we might suppose. Many of them were written either before or in the early years of his tenure there or after his interest in the instrument was renewed in the mid 1890s. The catalyst for this may well have been the appointment of his former student Albert Perilhou as organist of Saint-Séverin in January 1891. Saint-Saëns became accustomed to arriving at the end of Mass to play the voluntary, and in recognition of this he was made honorary organist of the church in 1897. The Trois Préludes et Fugues, Op 99 were written in 1894 and are Saint-Saëns’ first significant organ pieces for nearly thirty years. Dedicated to Widor, Guilmant and Gigout respectively they should, in the opinion of Vierne, be in the repertoire of every serious organist, both for their style and virtuosity. They combine characterful preludes with well-worked fugues which Saint-Saëns expressed some hesitation in writing. He was clearly satisfied with the results however as he included them in his 1899 recital in front of the academics at Trinity College, Cambridge. Whilst the preludes of Nos 1 and 2 are both gentle and graceful, the third is a brilliant, if economical, toccata; the fugue which follows it is based on a sweeping and eminently singable subject that builds to a rousing conclusion not out of place in the opera house. The second of the set, arguably the best known, sets off a somewhat jaunty fugue subject against the refined salon music of its prelude. In contrast the fugue subject of the E major derives its material from the elegant lines of the prelude itself and is a beautiful example of Saint-Saëns’ understated style. During 1896/7 he played Op 99 No 1 together with the Bénédiction and the fantasies of 1857 and 1895 in his Swiss concerts. This latter, the Fantaisie in D flat major, Op 101 was dedicated to Queen Elisabeth of Romania who was known in Paris as a writer under the pseudonym Carmen Sylva. Amongst the organ music it is perhaps in this piece above all others that Saint-Saëns shares the bench with romanticism. Whilst in each of the fantasies the sectionalized structure is highly organized, in this piece the musical language itself adds a further element of cohesion to the whole.

The last work from his period of renewed activity in the 1890s recorded here is the Marche religieuse, Op 107. In November 1897 Saint-Saëns gave a private performance for Queen Marie Christine of Spain at the church of San Francisco in Madrid. His short recital included the Rhapsodies, Op 7, the ‘mon cœur’ aria from Samson (transcribed on the spot) and a Marche religieuse. Whether this piece was written previously, was written specifically for this occasion or improvised here and notated later is unclear. In any event it was published the following year with a dedication to Marie Christine. This exuberant, powerful and elegant piece was one of two organ pieces that Saint-Saëns included in what is supposed to have been his last public recital, at the Salle Gaveau on 6 November 1913.

The Fantaisie in E flat major is the earliest work recorded here and was Saint-Saëns’ first published organ work. It is certainly his most enduring and is the only organ piece that still appears regularly on concert programmes. It was written in May 1857 as the restoration of the Saint-Merri organ was nearing completion and was first performed at its inauguration on 3 December that year. The manuscript bears a dedication to the composer’s friend Georges Schmitt, organist of Saint-Sulpice. Known primarily as a scholar, this is the same Georges Schmitt that Cavaillé-Coll was so singularly unimpressed with at the inauguration of the Saint-Sulpice instrument! This score makes technical demands quite exceptional for 1850s France and problematic in any age. It is written in two contrasting movements. The first is full of the charm and elegance so typical of its composer whilst the second provides a strong and confident conclusion. The critic Henri Blanchard did not think it particularly ‘fantastic’ but rather ‘serious, elegant and religious, all at the same time’. When A M Henderson visited Paris in 1908 Saint-Saëns insisted that he hear the piece on the organ for which it was written. The composer was probably anxious that Henderson appreciate fully the spatial arrangements of that organ which would have given the first movement a particular charm. That he performed it in his concerts of 1896/7 would attest to his own fondness for the piece and he must surely have played it with some regularity at La Madeleine.

The Bénédiction nuptiale, Op 9 of 1859 was written specifically with the organ of La Madeleine in mind. Its occasional registration markings refer specifically to the instrument for which Cavaillé-Coll provided his first voix céleste. Here it contains both ranks and is housed unusually on the unenclosed positif. Saint-Saëns gives to it the undulating introductory motif that opens the piece and answers this with the enclosed flutes of the récit. This is a rare instance of the composer calling for a specific effect in such a way. This piece clearly enjoyed some degree of popularity as it was performed even after the composer’s death (for instance, on 28 February 1922 at the wedding of HRH Princess Mary and Viscount Lascelles at Westminster Abbey). Saint-Saëns himself performed it at the inauguration of La Trinité in March 1869, and again in his programmes of the 1890s. Dedicated to Madam la Marquise de Mornay it was referred to by Vierne as ‘that little masterpiece of written-out improvisation’. Whereas the Revue et Gazette Musicale described it rather miserably as ‘a piece of little effect and few ideas’ it is surely a beautiful example of that complicity of melody and harmony which Saint-Saëns so espoused.

Cyprès, Op 156 and the Fantaisie No 3, Op 157 both date from 1919 and share many features of Saint-Saëns’ late style in common. Op 157 in particular contains passages that, like the late wind sonatas, juxtapose music reminiscent of Ravel with that which might seem old fashioned even next to the 1857 fantasy. Indeed, this piece perhaps more than any other organ work encapsulates the problem that scholars have in trying to place Saint-Saëns’ style. As we would expect, it is carefully put together and, as with Op 156, makes use of sparse, minimal textures and a thinly accompanied hautbois solo. It is easy to understand on hearing this piece how Saint-Saëns came to be regarded as such a musical anachronism in a world that had already witnessed the first serialist experiments. The funereal Cyprès is the first section of a two movement work, the second of which, Lauriers, is with orchestra and provides a triumphant if not cathartic conclusion. Written at the end of February to commemorate the armistice and dedicated to President Poincaré, it was premiered at Ostende on 18 April. Later performances followed in Paris, Liège, Brussels and Rouen conducted by Saint-Saëns with Gigout at the organ. Had this work been written in the 1860s it might well have been considered a masterwork to rival those prophetic works of Liszt which it so reminds us of. Originality was never a concern for Saint-Saëns however, and in the twentieth century’s search for novelty it was almost entirely ignored. The work is in one sense at least very much of its epoch as it reflects the devastation of the First World War. The composer commented that such grief left little room for rejoicing and even on the eve of the war he had written to Lecocq: ‘One asks oneself whether it would not have been better to die young than to see so many evils and horrors.’ It is a great irony that had he done so he would quite possibly have been afforded far more of the respect he deserves and his work would surely be better known today. However, we would have been deprived of some wonderful music, much of which is still awaiting discovery should we care to look.

Andrew-John Smith © 2008

Other albums in this series
'Saint-Saëns: Organ Music, Vol. 2 – La Madeleine, Paris' (CDA67815)
Saint-Saëns: Organ Music, Vol. 2 – La Madeleine, Paris
'Saint-Saëns: Organ Music, Vol. 3 – La Madeleine, Paris' (CDA67922)
Saint-Saëns: Organ Music, Vol. 3 – La Madeleine, Paris
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