Unearthing beauty in largely ignored Saint-Saëns works

Yao Minji
Wedged between musical commemorations of major Beethoven and Mahler anniversaries this year and last, the Saint-Saëns centenary has been largely overlooked in concert halls.
Yao Minji

Shanghai pianist Song Siheng, known for his virtuosity and vitality, was more excited than usual before the recent concert to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921).

The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and five top Chinese pianists presented all five Saint-Saëns piano concertos in two evenings.

“It is a rare chance for audiences to hear the complete set. Unfortunately, many are not often performed, except for No. 2,” said Song, who performed “Piano Concerto No. 4.”

The 40-year-old pianist studied with Dominique Merlet at France’s Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. Merlet was a student of Jean Roger-Ducasse, who was a pupil of Saint-Saëns’s best student Gabriel Faure. Song told Shanghai Daily that makes him a sort of “fourth successor” of Saint-Saëns.

“My mentor Merlet often shared tales and his interpretations of the maestro’s works,” Song said. “What he said most is that we ought to feel free when performing Saint-Saëns compositions.”

Unearthing beauty in largely ignored Saint-Saëns works
Ti Gong

Pianist Song Siheng performs the Saint-Saëns “Piano Concerto No. 4,” one of the French composer’s lesser-performed orchestral pieces.

Wedged between musical commemorations of major Beethoven and Mahler anniversaries this year and last, the Saint-Saëns centenary has been largely overlooked in concert halls. Some people consider him a vastly underrated composer, while others call him a child prodigy who never quite lived up to expectations.

In addition to five piano concertos, Saint-Saëns wrote five symphonies, including the popular third, commonly called the “Organ Symphony.” He is perhaps best-known for the whimsical musical suite “Carnival of the Animals,” especially the selection entitled “The Swan.” Other often-played works include the opera “Samson and Delilah,” the tone poem “Danse Macabre” and the “Violin Concerto No. 3.”

Saint-Saëns’ musical career spanned nearly the entire Romantic period, into the dawn of 20th century modern music. He is said to have composed his first piece of music at age 3 and was giving public concerts as a pianist and organist by age 7. At age 10, he could play all 32 Beethoven sonatas from memory.

Born eight years after Beethoven’s death, Saint-Saëns was 78 when he attended the now infamous 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which was such a shocking departure from traditional music that it caused an uproar in the concert hall. For his part, Saint-Saëns commented on the introductory melody featuring a bassoon: “If that’s a bassoon, then I’m a baboon!”

By then, he had fallen out of favor with the Paris musical scene, considered a conservative when music was venturing into new realms. But he was probably the only French musician who traveled to Munich to hear the premiere of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 8” in 1910.

Song said he regards Saint-Saëns as a pioneer, and even prophetic, in some ways.

“He was an atheist, one of the few composers from that period who didn’t carry the heavy religious cross in their works, making him sort of anti-monumental,” Song said. “That means, as a performer, I don’t have to carry that cross either.”

He added: “He spoke of science and art replacing religion in the future. Look around us now. I consider his prophecy partially fulfilled. That was a very pioneering thought.”

That thought was expressed in Saint-Saëns’ philosophical work “Problems and Mysteries,” which is among thousands of pages he wrote spanning fields like music critique, geology, acoustics, poetry and astronomy.

He was the first major composer to write a film score — for a 1908 silent movie — and even among the first to try a recording in a Paris studio, at age of 70. 

It was said that audience surged down the aisles shouting “Vive Saint-Saëns” at the premiere of his opera “Dejanire,” but almost all his operas, with the exception of “Samson and Delilah,” are forgotten today.

“Piano Concerto No. 4” that Song played is among his largely forgotten works. It was written in 1875, shortly after he married the 19-year-old sister of one of his pupils when he was 40. The marriage was not a success; he walked out on his wife in 1878.

The concerto was written during a period when Saint-Saëns was experimenting with traditional forms. The concerto is united by the “cyclic principle” of themes that constantly transform from one section to the next. It became a distinctive feature of French instrumental music in the late 19th century.

Many critics panned the concerto, but French pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), who owned the manuscript of the piece, later said that “a mere objective care over the nuances indicated and mere technical accuracy, even if of transcendent quality, are no longer here sufficient to give full value to Saint-Saëns’s ideas.”

According to Cortot, it is vital “to play the solo part like a role, to take inspiration from the atmosphere of each movement, whether dramatic, passionate, or dreamlike.”

The “Piano Concerto No. 5,” written 21 years later, is also rarely performed today.

“Given his long life, his reputation gradually faded,” said Sun Yingdi, who played the fifth concerto at the concert. “But Saint-Saëns was actually a rare composer who ticked almost every category of music — opera, cello concerto, piano concerto, symphony, violin concerto and even organ. And he has some acclaimed pieces in each category.”

Sun is best-known for his Liszt performances ever since winning first prize at the 7th International Franz Liszt Piano Competition in 2005 — the only Chinese to have ever won.

“In my view, Saint-Saëns never carried a mission to be a great composer, or a great man, like some composers as Beethoven did,” said Sun. “That’s what I like about Saint-Saëns and especially his ‘Concerto No. 5.’”

The fifth and last concerto was written, he noted, when Saint-Saëns had long been a well-established musician, who traveled extensively, touring 27 countries as a pianist and conductor. There was no pressure to leave a legacy.

“That sort of heart-warming quality heals its performer and audiences, especially now, after the world has gone through so much,” Sun explained.

In its obituary, The Times of London said the death of Saint-Saëns “deprives France of one of her most distinguished composers; it removes from the world the last representative of the great movements in music which were typical of the 19th century.”

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