Cycle
Camille Saint-Saëns, the one-man band

Sat 26 September - 19.30
Concert Chamber Music Venice

Romantic quintets

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Sun 27 September - 17.00
Concert Chamber Music Venice

Cello and piano, dialogues

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A century after his death, Saint-Saëns is still what one might call an ‘unknown celebrity’: though a few of his works have travelled all over the world, many more have sunk into oblivion. Focus on a chameleon-like, globetrotting artist.

The history of music has granted a special place to certain works by Camille Saint-Saëns. Indeed, the international fame of Le Carnaval des animaux, the First Cello Concerto, Danse macabre, the Second Piano Concerto, the ‘Organ’ Symphony and Samson et Dalila sets him above Gounod and Massenet in the ranking of posterity. Yet, when one examines his vast catalogue of works, many treasures seem neglected by our concert halls: who is familiar with his string quartets and Piano Quintet? His oratorio in English The Promised Land? His operas Phryné, Frédégonde and Déjanire? After publishing a selection of his correspondence and a book on his travels in the Orient, the Palazzetto Bru Zane has already recorded his cantatas for the Prix de Rome and his operas Les Barbares, Proserpine and Le Timbre d’Argent. Several discs of mélodies – including one with orchestra – have also revealed a subtle and constantly renewed musical style. It therefore seemed only natural for the Centre de musique romantique française to continue its work on this artist by devoting a cycle to him to mark the centenary of his death.
A ‘living, national and human’ art! That is what I clamour for.

Camille Saint-Saëns, “Le Voltaire”, July 1881

A virtuoso pianist
Trained in the classical school of French piano playing, Saint-Saëns remained all his life a champion of ‘jeu perlé’, the style of playing achieved by moderate usage of the loud pedal and extremely detailed articulation in the fingers. It may seem surprising that he wrote only thirty-four works for his instrument, none of them with any ambitions to be his musical testament. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that his five piano concertos have never left the standard repertory (the Second and Fifth in particular), despite the competition of Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff in this domain. The piano was more in the nature of a personal laboratory for Saint-Saëns. It acted as the vehicle for his technical experiments (he left three books each containing six études) and was also the recipient of the artist’s passions: the return to the past (Six Fugues, Suite in F major), trips to exotic lands (Africa, the ‘Egyptian’ Concerto, Souvenir d’Ismaïlia, Les Cloches de Las Palmas), scientific analysis by means of transcription (the Liszt Sonata and Chopin’s B minor Sonata arranged for two pianos, Paraphrase sur La Mort de Thaïs de Massenet, and diverse adaptations of Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Reber, Gounod, Berlioz etc.). Finally, the instrument was also a means of disseminating knowledge: Saint-Saëns the pianist not only championed his own works (which he arranged himself for piano four hands or two pianos in order to facilitate their diffusion), but also actively promoted Schumann, Beethoven, Mozart and the younger generation of French composers such as Alexis de Castillon.
1835
born in Paris
1848
enters the Conservatoire
1858
organist of church of La Madeleine
1871
founder member of the Société Nationale de Musique
1874
Danse macabre
1877
Samson et Dalila
1881
elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts
1921
dies in Algiers
An eclectic catalogue
Despite being, in Liszt’s view, ‘the world’s foremost organist’, Saint-Saëns composed even less for the organ than for the piano. His thoughts ran entirely in the direction of chamber music, orchestral music and opera. In addition to the piano concertos already mentioned (to which may be added two for cello and three for violin), we owe him five symphonies, four symphonic poems and several concert overtures. Although his catalogue of chamber music is solidly structured around sonatas, trios, quartets and quintets of every variety, it also teems with precious rarities: a Septet for trumpet, strings and piano, a Fantasy for violin and harp, a Caprice sur des airs danois et russes for flute, clarinet, oboe and piano. This variety demonstrates the extent to which Saint-Saëns was capable of diversifying his inspiration and straying from the traditional paths in order to reach an ever-wider musical public. His operatic output is still more eloquent in that respect: this generous purveyor of songs with orchestra (some thirty of them, most of which were revived by the Palazzetto Bru Zane in 2017 in a recording made in collaboration avec Alpha Classics) also wrote ambitious operas which, like those of Massenet, constantly renew their form and language. The light-hearted (Phryné, La Princesse jaune) rubs shoulders with the monumental (Henry VIII, Étienne Marcel), while the style of tragédie lyrique (Les Barbares, Déjanire) alternates with feverish Romanticism (Ascanio, Le Timbre d’argent), and even touches of Naturalism (L’Ancêtre).

Reactionary or pioneer?
Commentators still frequently treat Saint-Saëns condescendingly, without really knowing either the composer or his output: Déjanire, Frédégonde, Phryné and other major works still await resurrection. To assess Saint-Saëns’s modernity, one must not limit the angles of approach to his scores alone (which nonetheless prove that he was the first to introduce the organ into the symphony, and successfully shaped the prototype of the symphonic poem, then in its infancy). He sensed the need to create a Société Nationale de Musique in order to give a new lease of life to the composition of chamber music in France. He contributed to the first modern editions of the masters of the past, whose music it was necessary to understand, transcribe and adapt. He tried his hand at the new neo-Palestrinian style in his church music (Mass op.4) and reinvented English oratorio in the tradition of Handel (The Promised Land). For him, the twentieth century did not mark a descent into decadence: before Poulenc, he grasped the modernity and specificity of the French school of wind playing (writing solo sonatas for clarinet, bassoon and oboe, a Cavatine for trombone, and a Romance for horn) and he may be regarded as the first composer of film music (L’Assassinat du duc de Guise, 1908), a novelty that would in itself justify his place in the history of musical innovation. Saint-Saëns the pioneer – is that not the supreme paradox for a supposedly academic artist?

Programme

Thu 17
September
18.00
Sat 26
September
19.30
Concert Chamber Music Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista

Romantic quintets

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Sun 27
September
17.00
Concert Chamber Music Palazzetto Bru Zane

Cello and piano, dialogues

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Thu 1
October
17.30
Fri 9
October
19.30
Concert Chamber Music Palazzetto Bru Zane

Violin and piano

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Thu 15
October
17.30
Lecture Palazzetto Bru Zane

L'Art pour l'Art
Camille Saint-Saëns

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Thu 15
October
19.30
Concert Palazzetto Bru Zane

Mélodies

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Thu 22
October
19.30
Concert Chamber Music Palazzetto Bru Zane

The quartets of Saint-Saëns

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Sun 13
December
18.00
Opera Prinzregententheater

Déjanire

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Sat 16
January
19.30
Opera Theater Dortmund

Frédégonde

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Sat 23
January
19.30
Opera Theater Dortmund

Frédégonde

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Sat 13
February
19.30
Opera Theater Dortmund

Frédégonde

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Sat 27
March
19.00
Opera Oper Leipzig

Les Barbares

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Sun 28
March
18.00
Opera Theater Dortmund

Frédégonde

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Sat 3
April
19.00
Opera Oper Leipzig

Les Barbares

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Fri 16
April
19.30
Opera Theater Dortmund

Frédégonde

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Fri 23
April
19.30
Opera Oper Leipzig

Les Barbares

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Tue 27
April
19.30
Opera Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie

Henry VIII

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Thu 29
April
19.30
Opera Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie

Henry VIII

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Fri 30
April
19.30
Opera Oper Leipzig

Les Barbares

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Sun 2
May
15.00
Opera Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie

Henry VIII

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Tue 4
May
19.30
Opera Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie

Henry VIII

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Thu 6
May
19.30
Opera Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie

Henry VIII

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Sat 8
May
19.30
Opera Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie

Henry VIII

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Tue 11
May
19.30
Opera Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie

Henry VIII

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Thu 13
May
18.00
Opera Theater Dortmund

Frédégonde

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Fri 14
May
19.30
Opera Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie

Henry VIII

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Thu 27
May
19.30
Opera Theater Dortmund

Frédégonde

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Sat 5
June
20.00
Concert Sacred Music Halle aux Grains

The Promised Land

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Tue 8
June
20.30
Concert Sacred Music Philarmonie de Paris

The Promised Land

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Sat 12
June
19.00
Opera Oper Leipzig

Les Barbares

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Thu 24
June
Opera Auditorium du Musée du Louvre

Phryné

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Bru Zane Mediabase
Digital resources for French Romantic music
Camille Saint-Saëns