Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)

Violin Concerto # 3 in b minor, Op. 61

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“It is not generally realized that he was the most remarkable child prodigy in history, and that includes Mozart.”-Harold C. Schonberg (1915-2003), American Music Critic ad Journalist, New York Times

He Was Like Mozart….Without the Pressure of Being Mozart

Less than a year old, the small boy who would grow to be one of France’s greatest composers lost his father. Taken to live with his nurse in the country for two years, the child returned to Paris to live with his mother and widowed aunt. At three years of age, he demonstrated perfect pitch and could play piano compositions by ear. His mother, recognizing his abilities, provided quality private instruction in a safe, nurturing home environment. By the time he was five, Saint-Saens could have easily made his debut as a concert artist. His mother, however, learned from the example by Mozart’s childhood-that perhaps too much early notoriety might prove undesirable, even damaging. She waited until he was ten years old to publicly unveil her son’s considerable pianistic skills. Much to her credit, the young genius flourished under these circumstances.

Pianist, Organist ….and Later, Composer…

At age thirteen, Saint-Saens was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, a highly prestigious accomplishment for someone so young. Saint-Saens was immediately encouraged to study the organ, as it was considered a more dependable means of earning a living in music as opposed to that of a solo pianist. While Saint-Saens became an outstanding organist, he never abandoned his pianistic abilities. It is known that Saint-Saens committed all of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas to memory, and would play any of them at request. It was not until the age of 17 when Saint-Saens completed his first work, Trois Morceaux, for pump organ (or harmonium.) (Sidebar: The present writer is always delighted to comment on this. The manufacturing of the pump organ, (or cottage organ), and the harmonium were part of America’s economic growth after the civil war. In 1852, the year of Saint-Saens’ first composition, the pump organ and harmonium were used in Europe, but it was American innovation which made quality, mass produced instruments possible.)   His first symphony in 1853 followed. A composer whose works were to echo far beyond France was born.

…and Teacher

In 1861 Saint-Saens accepted a teaching position at the Ecole de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris. Founded in 1853, the mission of the institute focused on training exceptional organists and choirmasters. Appointed as head of Piano Studies, Saint-Saens often was criticized for teaching his students the works of modern composers like Schumann and Wagner. One of Saint-Saens’ most gifted students was the composer Gabriel Faure (1845-1924). In a touching account, Faure recalled his student days at the academy: “After allowing the class to run over, he (Saint-Saens) would go to the piano and reveal to us those masters which the rigorous classical nature of our programme of study kept us at a distance…I was 15 or 16, and from this time dates the immense admiration, the unceasing gratitude I had for him, throughout my life.”

The List of Favorites Goes On and On

For the listener who would like to explore the melodic wonders of this prolific and learned composer, here is a menu of delightful favorites:

The Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (for Violin and Orchestra, 1863), the Piano Concerto # 2 in g minor (1868), the Piano Concerto # 4 in c minor (1875), the Cello Concerto # 1 in a minor (1872), the tone poem Danse macabre (1874),the opera Sampson and Delilah (1877), the Violin Concerto # 3 in b minor (1880), the Symphony # 3 in c minor (the “Organ” symphony, 1886), and perhaps his most recognizable work The Carnival of Animals (1887), which includes the very famous movement for piano and cello, “The Swan.” (Sidebar: Saint-Saens originally composed this movement for cello and two pianos, the second providing a light, lilting accompaniment suggesting the gentle waves made by a gliding swan.)

A Treasury of Talents

Perhaps more so than any composer, Saint-Saens was gifted in many diverse areas, enthusiastically pursuing his interests in the same manner as a true Renaissance individual, a Michelangelo pouring his thoughts and inventive impulses in varied notebooks while painting and sculpting numerous masterpieces. The difference, of course, is that Saint-Saens painted in tones, his canvas often being the large-scale orchestra.

He Was Also a Poet….

In addition to writing poetry, Saint-Saens’ list of accomplishments is quite impressive. He was a respected astronomer, writing papers and delivering talks to various French astronomical societies. He was also a mathematician, a geographer, an expert in ancient Roman architecture and an astrologer.  (Sidebar: In the 19th century, astrology was revived as a means exploring our purpose as a part of the natural universe. Astrology was considered by many to be a mathematical and philosophical way of explaining our place in creation.)

Capturing the Passionate Warmth of Spain’s Famous Violinist

The Violin Concerto # 3 was written in March of 1880 for the preeminent Spanish violinist and composer Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1904). Anyone familiar with the work of Sarasate will immediately recognize the dramatic, colorful nature of his music which Saint-Saens so admirably echoed in this wonderful concerto. The work was premiered in October of 1880.

First Movement: Allegro non troppo

The concerto begins with dramatic trembling in the strings as the violin intones an equally dramatic, impatient recitative-like main theme. Operatic in nature and intensity, the violinist displays rapid passages interspersed with multiple double stops (two notes at once). This brings us to a romantically sweet second theme and a brief, hushed closing theme.

Save the Development for the Coda

One of the most remarkable aspects of this first movement is the structure. While Saint-Saens was often criticized for staying with conventional formulas, the first movement is quite innovative. After the exposition stated above, we are treated to all themes again with slight variation. But it is in the coda, or conclusion, that Saint-Saens gives us extensive development, as Beethoven and Brahms did in the first movement codas of their fifth and fourth symphonies, respectively. This saving up of dramatic development for the conclusion lends a dramatic impact, different from what is usually expected in the conventional concerto structure.

Second Movement: Andantino quasi allegretto

The second movement is serene, highly lyrical and hypnotic in its gently pulsating rhythm. Notice in the coda the equally enchanting harmonics in the violin, contrasted by the oboe. Harmonics always provide a tantalizing, softly shaded tone which is used to great effect here.

Enter the Great Finale

Third Movement: Molto moderato e maestoso-Allegro non troppo

Returning to the powerful, recitative-like effects of the opening of the first movement, Saint-Saens increases this dramatic quality in the opening of the finale. We then experience a wonderfully exotic, dance-like transition, beautifully capturing the vitality of Sarasate’s artistry as displayed in the violinist’s own works. This gives way to a magnificent second theme, filled with promise and uplifting grandeur. After a brief but dramatic development, we are treated to an entirely new section-a shimmering, luminous slow meditation of breathtaking sweetness. After building in tempo and volume, we are catapulted back to the dramatic, operatic main theme. The dance-like transitional section reappears, even more intensely, which in turn leads us again to the sweet grandeur of the second theme. The build up to the coda is likewise highly original and awe-inspiring. Exclamations from the brass lead us to the energetic utterances of the violin, heralding us to the exciting conclusion, featuring the glorious second theme. 

…And He Really Liked Trains

For people in the 19th century, trains represented a fascination with a sense of freedom which had previously been impossible. Saint-Saens, like Dvorak, was both amazed and irresistibly drawn to these powerful vehicles. Perhaps trains were symbolic to Saint-Saens-not only a symbol of freedom and exploration, but a symbol of what is possible for the human mind. Saint-Saens, constantly enraptured by the acquisition of knowledge, poured forth his fascination with the world through his music. And in listening to what he left behind, we too may join him on his journey.