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Trois Rhapsodies sur des cantiques bretons, Op 7
August 1866, Daurmeny; subtitled Pèlerinage au Pardon de Sainte-Anne-La-Palud; dedicated to Fauré

'Saint-Saëns: Organ Music, Vol. 3 – La Madeleine, Paris' (CDA67922)
Saint-Saëns: Organ Music, Vol. 3 – La Madeleine, Paris
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No 1: E major
No 2: D major
No 3: A minor / F major

Trois Rhapsodies sur des cantiques bretons, Op 7
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.

from notes by Andrew-John Smith © 2012

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