'The variety of colour explored by Smith on this fabulous instrument contributes to the joyous experience of listening to his performance. The use of orchestral tubular bells … is successful and Smith's dextrous virtuosity thrills us though to the conclusion … The enthusiasm with which Smith talks about these pieces in his notes … is amply reflected in his playing, which is in turn commanding, sensitive, robust and lyrical, as the music requires' (International Record Review)
'The mighty Fantaisie pour orgue-Aeolian, complete with tubular bells, written for the new American Aeolian organ in 1906, sounds epic on this vast, brooding instrument, so splendidly tamed by the dextrous Smith' (The Observer)
'Saint-Saëns described the Fantaisie as 'unplayable by the hands and feet' but Andrew-John Smith proves otherwise … in the more conventional repertoire, Smith capitalises on the colours that the La Madeleine instrument so richly offers' (The Daily Telegraph)
D major [6'06]
E major [5'18]
A minor / F major [7'57]
[Dies irae] [6'58]
This third volume completes Andrew-John Smith’s series of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Music, which has been praised for the compelling brilliance of the performances, the inspired choice of instrument and the remarkable quality of the music itself.
The recital ends with the formidable Fantaisie pour orgue-Aeolian, a work which makes extraordinary technical demands on the organist—in fact the composer himself wrote that it was ‘unplayable by the fingers and feet’. This led to the work being condemned to obscurity and it was as recently as 1988 that it was reconstructed and published for the first time. Andrew-John Smith’s performance defies this edict, and the translation of the original registration to the organ of La Madeleine is a feat of ingenuity.
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Described by Reynaldo Hahn as ‘musical art’s last great classicist’, so much has been made of this aspect of both his work and his personality that even in his own lifetime Saint-Saëns came to be seen as old fashioned and reactionary. Whilst in some ways this is justifiable, the enormous commitment with which he embraced innovation is just as significant. He was one of the first mainstream composers to write solo music for the harmonium, and amongst the first French composers of the nineteenth century to write chamber music. In February 1871 he became a founding member of the Société nationale for the promotion of French music and was credited with almost single-handedly developing the solo concerto in France. He was one of the first to incorporate genuine Arabic melodies into his scores, such as those in Samson et Dalilah, or the Suite algérienne, Op 60, and in 1908 became the first notable composer to write a film score with L’assassinat du Duc de Guise, Op 128. He was fascinated by the possibilities of electricity and whereas Handel, C P E Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven had written for early types of musical automata, in 1906 he became the first composer of note to write exclusively for the fully automated self-playing pipe organ.
The Aeolian Organ & Music Company was formed in New York in 1888 and began developing its instrument from the player reed organs that had appeared from 1878 onwards. The first modern reproducing pipe organ was built in 1893 for a private residence in Rhode Island: Ferrand & Votey of Detroit provided a two-manual, twenty-nine-rank instrument and the Aeolian Organ Company fitted an automated player mechanism. Such was the success of this venture that the arrangement became standard practice and when the Orchestrelle Company (the British division of Aeolian) took over the Grosvenor Gallery on New Bond Street, London, and converted it into a four-hundred-seat concert hall, Hutchings & Votey were engaged to provide a two-manual, forty-eight-stop organ to which Aeolian added their mechanism. This instrument shipped to London in September 1903 and the Aeolian Hall opened to the public on 19 January 1904. The American scholar Rollin Smith has described this instrument thus:
The Aeolian Hall organ was eminently expressive, all stops except the Open Diapason of Manual I being enclosed. The ten-stop Echo division was installed in its own chamber in an adjoining room at the back of the hall. It contained a second Vox Humana … The chimes on the Aeolian organ were tubular bells, exactly like orchestral bells struck by electrically actioned hammers. Their compass was 20 notes: from A below middle C to E, one and a half octaves above; they sounded an octave higher than the notes played on the keyboard … The Aeolian organ was essentially no different from other instruments of its period either in specification, placement, or mechanical accessories. It did, however, have the advantage of additional control through an automatic player mechanism. This organ for which Saint-Saëns wrote did no more than reproduce the notes as punched on a paper roll … The rolls were perforated by hand by factory workers, euphemistically identified on the labels as The Aeolian Organ guild. All directions for interpretation were printed on the roll with rubber stamps … the swell pedals and the crescendo pedal were operated by the ‘organist’ … The tempo, accelerandi and ritardandi were controlled by the tempo lever.
This instrument is of particular significance in the composition of Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie pour orgue-Aeolian as it seems highly probable that the composer visited and familiarized himself with it when in London for the premiere of his second Cello Sonata, Op 123, at Bechstein Hall on 12 July 1906. At this time he had already received the commission from the Aeolian Company in New York to compose an original work for their automated instruments and it is hard therefore to imagine a man with such capacious curiosity not taking advantage of this happenstance. Although some nineteen transcriptions of Saint-Saëns’ works are to be found in an Orchestrelle catalogue of 1901 they were not made by him and it is unlikely that the composer ever saw one of these instruments. The first draft of the Fantaisie, entitled ‘Morceau écrit pour l’orgue Aeolian’, was almost certainly composed in London, written as it is on manuscript paper manufactured by the London firm of Beale and Chappelle. When he visited New York as part of an American tour in October 1906 Saint-Saëns delivered the finished manuscript in person to Frank Taft, Director of the Aeolian Company, who issued it the following year.
Both the Aeolian Company and Saint-Saëns himself made much of the piece’s prodigious technical demands. In a programme note for their catalogue the Aeolian Company wrote: ‘The Fantaisie was composed especially for the Aeolian pipe organ and in it Saint-Saëns has availed himself of the privileges afforded by the technical facilities of the instrument … [he] has disregarded the limitations of the human performer and has embraced the opportunities of the enormous technique of the Aeolian pipe organ.’ Saint-Saëns confirmed this opinion when he described the work to his secretary and biographer, Jean Bonnerot, as ‘unplayable by the fingers and feet’. This belief, together with the lack of a conventionally notated edition, has condemned the work to obscurity and it was as recently as 1988 that Rollin Smith, working from the first draft and the perforated rolls, reconstructed the work and published it for the first time.
Though written in clearly defined sections, the work flows in a constant stream of invention in which a tripartite introduction is followed by a theme and four variations. The last of these gives way to a more placid central section in F sharp major which introduces a second theme followed by a variation in which the rapid right-hand passagework is designated for the harp. As the Aeolian Hall organ didn’t receive its harp until 1909 it is probable that Saint-Saëns hadn’t heard one by the time of the Fantaisie’s composition, though he was presumably aware that it involved the striking of tuned metal bars. This variation is followed by the introduction of a third theme which is developed, together with the second, towards the finale where the first theme returns in conjunction with the third. Saint-Saëns saved the chimes for this point where Smith has rather splendidly described their use as ‘great clanging orchestral bells pealing in dialogue with the full organ’. On this recording the registration markings of the Aeolian Company rolls have been freely translated to the organ of La Madeleine where ways have been found, with very few exceptions, to play all of the notes written by the composer. The chimes are here performed on a set of orchestral bells.
When Saint-Saëns took over the piano class at the École Niedermeyer in 1861 he was no less innovative in the teaching of Wagner, Schumann and Liszt to the pupils he inherited there. Among their number were Eugène Gigout, Albert Périlhou and, most notably, Gabriel Fauré. Whilst he was to enjoy lifelong friendship with each of them, it was Fauré with whom he formed a particularly special bond. Although only ten years stood between them the relationship was both filial and that of teacher/pupil. Just as Saint-Saëns was never quite able or willing to relinquish his position of authority, Fauré seems, on the whole, to have accepted it with gratitude. Saint-Saëns did much behind the scenes to secure positions for his protégé and it was not by chance that Fauré later succeeded him as organist of La Madeleine. Following the tragic deaths of his own sons in 1878 Saint-Saëns treated Fauré’s boys, Emmanuel and Philippe, as nephews and Marie Fauré accepted the older man as a member of her family. The Trois Rhapsodies sur des cantiques bretons (Pèlerinage au Pardon de Sainte- Anne-La-Palud), Op 7, to give the work its full title, were written at Daurmeny in August 1866 and are dedicated to Fauré. Earlier that year Fauré had taken up his first position as organist of St Sauveur in the Breton town of Rennes and was not enjoying life. Saint-Saëns and his friends Henri Regnault, Georges Clarin, Emmanuel Jadin and Ulysse Butin visited the area and were joined by Fauré on a pilgrimage to Sainte-Anne-La-Palud. It was during a boat trip that the ‘thin rustic sound’ of the captain playing local folk tunes on an oboe suggested the Rhapsodies to their composer.
The theme of the first Rhapsodie has been identified as a ‘Cantique des missionaires’ and the secondary theme of the second as a Breton Noël. In post-Revolution organ repertoire only the fugue retained its status as art music and just as the Te Deum became a vehicle for hunting and battle pieces the Noël was appropriated for patriotic songs. The tradition of organ Noëls in France can, however, be traced back to the seventeenth century, arguably reaching its zenith in the works of Daquin. It is this pre-Revolutionary tradition that Saint-Saëns reflects in his Op 7, and whilst the thematic material for the third of the set has not been identified, both the first theme in A minor and the musette in F major owe something to Daquin. Saint-Saëns was evidently pleased with the work and he was quick to transcribe it in versions for piano four hands and harmonium. Having performed the work himself on numerous occasions he returned to it in 1891 when he orchestrated the outer movements under the new title of Rapsodie bretonne (Op 7 bis). It is probable that having lived with the work Saint-Saëns felt that these movements belonged together. Aesthetically they share much in common and despite the two sections of the orchestral score it is clearly conceived as one work. It is possible that the composer considered the second movement of Op 7 less suitable for orchestration, although given the size of the orchestra he deployed this seems unlikely. Less likely still is that he didn’t think the piece worthy of further attention; it is a fabulous work, quite disarming in its musical honesty. Although published together under a single opus number, the collection does not form a unified musical entity, and the ordering of the pieces on this recording reflects the composer’s thinking in 1891.
The Élévation ou Communion in E major, Op 13, was dedicated to another of Saint-Saëns’ friends, Alexis Chauvet, whom the composer helped secure his old position at St Merry in 1863. Whilst it survives in an early manuscript that may date from as early as 1856 (Bonnerot gives 1859) it was not published until its inclusion in a volume by Canaux et Maeyens-Couvreur in 1865. There remains the possibility that it originated as a now-lost motet for upper voices though by the time of its publication it was on two staves and carried the indication ‘2 Claviers et Pédale’. The work clearly enjoyed a certain success and was republished by Durand in separate versions for organ and harmonium in 1880 and in Saint-Saens’ own transcription for piano solo in 1886.
Whilst the charming Sarabande is best known as the second movement of the 1863 orchestral Suite, Op 49, an early untitled version for organ or harmonium survives in a manuscript from 1859. It was nonetheless first published in 1877, both in its full version and a four-hand piano arrangement by Guiraud. In 1890 Durand published it in an organ ‘arrangement’ on three staves by Saint-Saëns’ friend Gaston Choisnel, almost certainly made under the composer’s supervision. It later appeared in Échos du monde religieux (1901) and L’Organiste (1911), once again on two staves, under the title Offertoire.
Gaston Choisnel appears again as the dedicatee of O salutaris hostia, the only organ transcription of his own work that Saint-Saëns ever published. Generally he was happy to allow others (Guilmant, Busser, Boëllmann and Gigout among them) to undertake these arrangements for him, but in 1904 he himself returned to the Mass, Op 4, of 1856, and to its graceful fifth movement, for sopranos and organ, as the source for this miniature. He performed the piece himself at the Salle Pleyel in November 1904, prompting Arthur Pougin to write in Le Ménestrel of this ‘absolutely delightful’ work that it ‘so enchanted the audience’ and that ‘so enthusiastic was the applause that he should have repeated it’.
Little is known for certain about the untitled Dies irae which appeared in print for the first time only in 1991, when it was assigned the title ‘Thème, Variations et Choral’. The working title given here derives from its use of the Requiem’s Dies irae plainchant. Written on seven staves it survives only in a manuscript at the Bibliothèque nationale and regrettably breaks off fifteen bars into a second movement. Quite what form, or even what instrumentation, the finished work would have taken is unknown. The music that we have is too strong to be ignored, however, and is not unlike the first movement of Cyprès et Lauriers, Op 156, in mood, subject matter and texture. Sabina Teller Ratner has suggested a date of 1859 for the piece, based on its inclusion among manuscripts from this time. If this date is accurate then the work is all the more remarkable for anticipating Liszt’s music of the 1860s onwards. The juxtaposition of styles found here is quintessentially Saint-Saëns, however, from the Mendelssohnian clarity of its first variation and the Romantic turmoil of its central section to the sparse, empty landscape of its bleak conclusion. Surely such a combination is innovative in itself.
Andrew-John Smith © 2012
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