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.
from notes by Andrew-John Smith © 2012