Saint-Saëns: Apollo Among the Dionysians
The Bard Music Festival, “Saint-Saëns and his World,” August 10-12 and 17-19, 2012
At first, Saint-Saëns was ahead of his time. Then, following his decade at the apex of French music, he was old-fashioned. We remember him today as if he were a composer of ‘light’ music, suitable for Pops concerts and to be excerpted. His most well-known work was a private joke that he hesitated to publish. And yet, as demonstrated by the Bard Festival, he was considerably more than that, a figure through whose music and career a new light is cast on the art and culture of the second half of the nineteenth century.
What emerged from 12 concerts1, numerous pre-concert talks and panel discussions, and debates among the patrons over sandwiches and coffee in between, was a figure we didn’t know. Saint-Saëns was a supremely conscious creative personality who chose to adhere to an individual aesthetic and link it to French national culture in the wake of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870), and persisting through World War I to the end of his long life in 1921. He cultivated it through his own virtuosity as pianist and organist, his prodigious skill with counterpoint, his fresh approaches to classical forms, his characteristically French lyrical melos inclining toward modal ambiguity, his prophetic grasp of the significance of French baroque music, and his eventual fascination with and incorporation of non-western musical influences. Also unknown to most of us was the prolific and under-valued opera composer whose one widely-known opera, “Samson and Delilah,” is probably an atypical example of the eleven he composed, having been planned initially as an oratorio.
None of this guarantees the production of great music, but with the opportunity the festival afforded of hearing a larger sample of his output than most of us were acquainted with, along with the context provided by sampling both familiar and unfamiliar works of his contemporaries, his best work stood out as powerful and occasionally thrilling demonstrations of the viability of his aesthetic and his artistic personality. These included three chamber works: the Piano Trio and Piano Quartet heard on the opening concert and the Violin Sonata heard later on; two orchestral works: the Fifth Piano Concerto, Egyptian, and Third Symphony with organ, both heard on the first Saturday night program; and an opera, Henry VIII, in a powerful performance that ended the festival on the second Sunday.
The undervaluing of Saint-Saëns began during the latter phase of his career, when he appointed himself an articulate and provocative spokesman critical of the modernist stirrings of French and other composers after the turn of the century. It was perpetuated even on the present occasion by Leon Botstein whose opening remarks somewhat apologetically justified having a festival devoted to a composer of “less than top rank” by pointing out (provocatively) that most of the audience were in that same category. He went on to down-play expectations by comparing Saint-Saëns’ music-theater abilities somewhat unfavorably to those of his towering contemporaries Wagner and Verdi, saying that he failed to exploit dramatic situations in his operas as thoroughly as they did, failing to squeeze the last drop of dramatic juice out of the climactic moments. I believe that such comments were cleverly calculated to throw the audience off-guard for the wonderful surprises that lay in store, since Botstein himself was on the podium for many of them, and for the most part delivered them convincingly.
The power of such a festival is that it establishes a different framework within which to experience and assess the music offered, a framework other than the repetitious and static one offered by ordinary concert life (of which the Bard Festival stands as a critique). Late romantic music was dominated by Germans, with a strong supporting role played by Italian opera. The general aesthetic projected by this period is one of increasing emotional intensity with some corresponding loss of subtlety as middle-class audiences expanded and venues for symphony and opera grew correspondingly larger. French contributions are often seen as eccentric, either as prophetic forerunners (Berlioz), unique, isolated voices (Fauré), Wagner wannabe’s (Franck, D’Indy) or modernist rebels (Debussy and Ravel).
But it is a bit misleading to speak of Saint-Saëns’ “world,” which was in fact many worlds. The composer spent almost a quarter of his life in the twentieth century, and these were active, not retiring years. We had the pleasure of hearing oboe and bassoon sonatas written after the end of World War I, eight years after the premier of Le Sacre du Printemps. The chronological span of the Festival’s repertory by other composers ranged from Gottschalk’s Bamboula of 1844 to Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne of 1932-33, not to speak of Rameau’s Pièces de Claveçin en Concert of 1741. There was some justification for including all of it, as Saint-Saëns was vigorously involved in the public world of music either as an advocate (Rameau, Mozart) or an opponent (Debussy, Stravinsky). It was also good to have an opportunity to hear the almost unknown cello sonata of Alberic Magnard, whose quintet for piano and winds had been a highlight of the Debussy festival at Bard over a decade ago; as an acolyte of Franck and D’Indy, Magnard’s style moves further in the direction of hyper-seriousness and refusal to repeat or to display formal symmetry. It shares almost nothing with the composer’s French contemporaries, least of all Saint-Saëns. While Zuil Bailley gave a strongly characterized and technically adroit reading of the score, it was clear that he and his accompanist Blair McMillen had not acquainted themselves with this knotty, tough-minded work sufficiently to sort out its formal complexities, and the piece seemed to ramble aimlessly at times, an impression dispelled upon consulting the excellent recording by Mats Lindström and Bengt Försberg.
But while listeners could relish the enormous variety afforded by the composer’s many connections, the more enlightening resonances were found in works of his contemporaries that demonstrated artistic sympathies or parallel endeavors. Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, splendidly performed by Danny Driver, draws on many of the same influences, forms, and gestures as Saint-Saëns, but his work displayed an utterly different personality: earnest, dark-hued, with a formal trajectory that seems at times to waver, only to arrive at its climactic destination with a sense of spiritual triumph, in contrast to Saint-Saëns’ fundamentally secular narratives. D’Indy’s harmonically sophisticated Suite dans le style ancien neatly paired with Saint-Saëns’ freshly enthusiastic Septet as two examples of a late-romantic neo-baroque development. Perhaps the greatest stretch was provided by the pairing to two unusual narrative pieces performed together on a program led by James Bagwell: Berlioz’s melodrama Lelio whose self-indulgent autobiographical spoken text loosely threaded together some of his less memorable choral pieces; along with Saint-Saëns’ effective and pioneering film score for a 1908 film, The Assassination of the Duc de Guise, scored for chamber ensemble. Aside from unusual generic strategies, the two works had little in common.
French music historians reject the notion that their 17th-18th century composers such as Couperin and Rameau are “baroque” and prefer the term “classical” since they (along with Lully and others) contributed to bringing French music under Louis XIV and XV to a high-point. One can find a parallel historical situation in which French composers in the 19th century stand apart from their contemporaries in Germany and Italy; most of them are associated with opera, such as Meyerbeer, Halévy, Gounod, Bizet, Massanet, and Saint-Saëns. One might propose a separate kind of romanticism for these composers, based on mutual influences, common language, traditional audience expectations, etc, with an identifiable aesthetic, perhaps most clearly embodied in Saint-Saëns. If late Romanticism in general is Dionysian, French music of this period, particularly that of Saint-Saëns, inclines toward the image of Apollo. It is ironic that Nietzsche gave us this image of cultural forces in his 1872 encomium to Wagner, “The Birth of Tragedy in the Spirit of Music” of 1872; but afterwards turned against Wagner and placed in opposition a truer manifestation of life-forces, Bizet’s Carmen.
While Saint-Saëns’ theatrical muse may not rise to the heights of colorful dramatic intensity of Bizet’s masterpiece, it can offer its own brand of well-paced narrative drama, as heard not only in the full operatic offering of Henry VIII, but also in the oratorio Le Déluge (The Flood) performed in a program of French choral music on the second Saturday evening. This program included choral works by Gounod (Stabat Mater, 1867), Florent Schmitt (Psalm 47, 1904) and Lili Boulanger (Psalm 130, Du fond de l’abîme, 1910-1917) as well as an orchestral tone-poem, Les djinns, of Fauré. Within, let’s say, the climatic range of French romanticism, Saint-Saëns’ treatment of the story of the Flood occupied the temperate zone. His work was modeled on the English oratorio with touches of Mendelssohn. The musical idioms ranged from salon music representing the easy life before the flood, and returning for the music of the dove; to brooding romantic orchestral music indicating the Lord’s dissatisfaction with human degeneracy; and to a uniquely “Saint-Saëns-ish” musical flow (think “Aquarium” from Carnival of the Animals) for the spreading of the waters. The influence of earlier music was felt in the recitatives, but also the orchestral depiction of the flood with its wide-spaced chords, flutes on top, that could have come from the innovative orchestrations of Rameau. (In his short opera Pygmalion, Rameau uses a similar texture for the magic moment when the statue of Galatea comes to life.) And of course, the finale illustrating the Lord’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” gives an excuse for a grand choral fugue, the kind of technical feat that Saint-Saëns could bring off apparently without effort.
The other works on this Saturday night program (entitled “The Spiritual Sensibility”) occupied different latitudes: Gounod’s treatment of the depiction of Mary at the foot of the cross was, shall we say, Floridian: sweetly sentimental verging on the saccharine, in contrast with Saint-Saëns’ narrative restraint. Schmitt’s singing and dancing before the Lord came from below the Dionysian tropics, all the way from a desert where no amount of clapping, banging, and shouting could rise to a level of articulate communication. It had the distinction of being the loudest work in the festival, without gaining any value from the effort, just as his Piano Quintet, performed at the Debussy festival many years ago, gained similar distinction from its length, filling at least 55 minutes with empty bluster.
In contrast, the Boulanger setting of only a fragment of the Psalm 130 text seemed to originate in a harsh northern climate. It provided one of those “ah-ha” moments that are de rigueur at Bard Festivals: the discovery of a composition so inspired and obviously significant that you can’t understand why it is not more familiar until you realize the its composer lived only to the age of 23. A truly impressive masterpiece, almost a half-hour in length, it possessed a unique, dark-hued, urgently compelling voice with a singular, unconventional harmonic vocabulary, which never loses its way in the course of its grand structure. Although conceived earlier, the work was completed on the composer’s deathbed in 1917 in the midst of World War I. Its idiom is progressive in a way that owes little to either the impressionists or the expressionists; had she survived to a normal age, one can easily imagine the composer occupying a position alongside the great figures of the early twentieth century. The performance was committed and stirring.
Saint-Saëns’ connection to the Apollonian side of French music was exhibited by his early (and unnumbered) Symphony in A (1850?) presented at the start of the first orchestral concert. As the work of a ca. fifteen-year-old, it is precocious, almost in a category with the prodigious works of the teen-aged Mendelssohn, and in its fleet, cheerful version of the Haydn symphonic template it anticipates the initial symphonic efforts of Gounod and Bizet which followed five years later. The tone and approach to symphonic structure exemplify an alternate symphonic tradition emanating from late Haydn and early Beethoven and including the first six symphonies of Schubert. There is scant evidence of the darker drama of the Germanic tradition of later Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, or even Gade. Its portentous introduction, quoting the first four notes of the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony to be used later on, sets up the buoyant and almost anachronistically light-hearted Allegro that follows, just as in one of the Haydn London symphonies. Its second theme-area has the easy-going lyricism (with a touch of the salon) that will become characteristic of the composer. It is disrupted by sly melodic fragments as if to play hide-and-seek with the audience; it could almost have come from a page of Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants. The whole movement is a thoroughly accomplished and surprisingly satisfying classical sonata-allegro. And the rest of the symphony follows suit. Its placement toward the start of the festival foreshadowed what we would find in the composer’s other classical-genre works: easy mastery of the proportions of classical form, readily available if not always distinguished lyricism, lucid and colorful, if not spectacular, use of the instrumental forces, and a joyful acceptance of the eighteenth century heritage of these forms. The work is poised at the balance-point between the classical and the neo-classical, and is worth getting to know if only to ponder the distinction between these two movements, neither of which is normally associated with the nineteenth century.
The three chamber works mentioned earlier exemplify the continuing importance of established genres as frameworks for some of the composer’s most accomplished structures. For example, the opening concert featured Trio no. 1 in F, op. 18, from 1864, which launches into its material with tremendous vitality, works with cross-rhythms and pentatonic motifs foreshadowing middle-period Dvorak. The light scoring gives plenty of space for lyrical cello-writing and the piano provides the kind of sparkling filigree texture that would become very familiar over the course of the festival. Compelling flow, seamlessly traversing a well-balanced and dramatically varied sonata-form also characterized the later movements, including an Andante whose melody is broken into two-note fragments that are knit together by a larger lyric force. This two-note finger-print shows up repeatedly in the composer’s oeuvre: in the theme of the last movement of the Trio, in the development section of the Organ Symphony, in the Fifth Piano Concerto’s opening theme, and in the Fourth Piano Concerto’s first and final movements (among many other places). Another characteristic trait shows itself in the scherzo, where the constant juxtaposition of on- and off-beats leads to a kind of rhythmic vertigo reminiscent of Beethoven’s more playful scherzos such as in the Fifth Violin Sonata (Spring) or in his last string quartet. Classicism of form and containment of rhythmic disruptiveness remind us that one of Saint-Saëns’ sobriquets was “the French Beethoven.”
Similar or even greater satisfactions arrived in the Piano Quartet op. 41 (1875) whose second movement is a contrapuntal tour de force. Here a chorale tune (close to Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern but in a minor key) is subject to varied treatment, in both strict and free counterpoint. Its form is that of a chorale-prelude into which two large-scale fugues are inserted; the contrapuntal texture has room for a layer of virtuosic piano writing. The structured development of this texture spans the movement, and is a far cry from the brief fughettas that many romantic composers throw in to certify that they have passed their counterpoint courses. The other movements display Saint-Saëns’ comfort in freely restructuring classical models without sacrificing balance and formal coherence. The second and third movements depart from the home (major) key of the first, and the finale begins off-key with the tonality of the previous scherzo, only gradually approaching the return to the home key of the first that was last heard almost 20 minutes before. During this return the chorale and the counterpoint of the second movement reappear as if the music were working its way backwards toward the beginning, which finally arrives about seven-and-half minutes into the movement in a passage whose lyricism is multiplied by the structural tensions that have been overcome. This is followed by yet another return of the chorale and counterpoint, but finally in the major of the home key. A grand synthesis of formal, contrapuntal, thematic, and harmonic elements produces a truly well-earned moment of romantic but rationally-based ecstacy at the conclusion, a characteristic Saint-Saëns moment.
This kind of structural drama, one oriented toward process and listener involvement rather than psychodrama that plumbs the depths of the soul, forms the basis for the most powerful of the composer’s instrumental works, including the third of the great chamber works heard: the Violin Sonata in D minor, op 75 (1885). Structurally this work is paired with the Organ Symphony, op. 78 (1886). Both works use a two-part structure of two linked sections each, and both have a totally cyclic thematic structure in which materials undergo metamorphosis and reappearance across the entire span. Both have integrated harmonic plans that make use of the relationship of the half-step which juxtaposes the most distant harmonies and unfolds a reconciliation between them that plays out across the whole structure.
Virtuosic piano writing became a connecting thread among many works heard in the festival, pointing to the composer’s important role as one of the leading performing pianists in France. He began piano lessons at age three, wrote his first piano piece a year later, began performing at the age of five, and made his official debut at eleven. As a boy, he knew all the Beethoven sonatas by heart. Reviews of his playing quoted in the volume of articles published along with the festival2 indicate that as a youngster his style was rather dry and literal. They indicate, however, that as he matured, he became more expressive and varied. He was an infallible sight-reader, occasionally giving performances on no rehearsals whatsoever. His writing for the piano was always brilliant and resourceful, drawing on the full range of the instrument and the full resources of the completely equipped pianist. He first met Liszt when he was seventeen and the two became highly esteemed colleagues. One can hear recordings that he made near or at the end of his life, at ages 69, 84, and 86. They indicate that his light, clear, and precise touch remained unaffected by age, and that he retained total accuracy and agility to the end. This prodigious performing talent informs both his manner of composing for the instrument and his aesthetic: the piano is rarely employed at full force, but touches every register between the utmost delicacy of sparse single notes and the assault of rapidly alternating double-octave passages. When the piano is included in his compositions, its brilliance often provides climactic material, especially in an ecstatic “race to the finish” closing passage. Even in his “organ” symphony, Saint-Saëns could not avoid using this piano color in the scherzo.
The standard of performance in the festival was very high. Space does not permit a detailed evaluation of each performance, so high-points (and some not-so-high points) will be mentioned. Above all, what stood out were the contributions of the pianists, owing in large part to the brilliant style of writing in Saint-Saëns’ works. Outstanding were Danny Driver who brought crystal-clear finger work and great joie de vivre to the Egyptian Concerto (no. 5 in F minor), as well as lightness and perfect balance to the very challenging piano part of the Violin sonata no. 1, partnering the intensely serious, concentrated playing of Eugene Drucker. His rendition of Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, a work familiar to serious piano students if not the concert-going public, was notable for the nuanced beauty of the chorale, and he discovered the balance between dramatic excitement and structural clarity necessary for the final fugue to avoid the feeling that it is going on too long. Rieko Aizawa, pianist of the Horszowski Trio, won the audience’s heart in the Trio no. 1 and Piano Quartet owing to her beautiful tone, fluid execution, and expressive shaping of every detail. Unfortunately, the strings in those performances were underbalanced, perhaps owing to the acoustics on Sosnoff auditorium projecting their sound with less efficiency than the piano.
Orion Weiss made many brilliant contributions, whether partnering with his wife Anna Polonsky in the Variations on a theme by Beethoven, op. 35 (1874) for two pianos or Fauré’s Dolly Suite, op. 56 (1894-96) for piano four-hands, or rippling through the solo part of the giddy confection Wedding Cake for piano and instrumental ensemble (a work that unfortunately reinforces the composer’s salon image), or accompanying mezzo Jamie Van Eyck in three skillful but inconsequential songs by Pauline Viardot in such a way as to make them seem magical. But my favorite of his performances was of Cécile Chaminade’s Gavotte op. 162 no. 5 (ca. 1921), a work whose listing led one to expect another salon bon-bon, but which proved to be a powerhouse virtuoso vehicle which the pianist handled with some sweat but with ultimate aplomb. Another digitally impressive performance was offered by Gilles Vonsattel, who whipped off Saint-Saëns’ exotic fantasy Africa, a knuckle-buster that could have been an attempt to compete with Balakirev’s notorious Islamey which Saint-Saëns must have known through his important Russian connections. Partnered with four strings, Anna Polonsky took the major role in Saint-Saëns’ early Piano Quintet in A minor, op. 14 (1855), a work full of delights, but not quite as distinctive or impressive as the chamber works previously mentioned.
Less successful pianistic efforts occurred in other repertoire. Alessio Bax’s rendition of Dukas’ important and elaborate Variations, Interlude, and Finale on a Theme by Rameau (1899-1902), which deserves to be better known, was marred by over-pedalling and a whimsical rubato that blurred the structural outlines of the work, as well as the important sectional contrasts, in a style more suited to Scriabin than Dukas. This ambitious and difficult work benefits from a more straightforward reading that emphasizes clarity of texture and articulation. 3
A generous programming philosophy left ample room for what we might call “genre” music, representatives of a salon culture that enjoyed lighter forms of entertainment without demanding depth or originality. In a concert setting, some of these works could be rescued by excellent performances, such as the three unmemorable Pauline Viardot songs, the Two Aubades of Edouard Lalo for chamber ensemble which consisted of gracefully empty gestures in a naïve style whose artistic potential was much better demonstrated by Fauré’s Dolly Suite (or in Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants, not included in the Festival programming). Just as vapid was the suite from Le bal de Béatrice d’Este by Marcel Proust’s erstwhile companion Reynaldo Hahn, who seems to have sneaked himself into the annals of music history through a back door.
These works were included in programs labeled “Ars Gallica” and “Proust and Music,” which also included artistically much more substantial fare; it could be argued that they imparted a certain perspective to the view of the cultural context, but vapid and kitschy works can be found at the margins of every worthwhile musical culture. It seems, however, that just shy of those margins, the French managed to produce many wonderful things, including the unavoidable Carnival of the Animals, here presented imaginatively, with the individual pieces interspersed with a rather pedestrian narrative by Mitchell Morris and performances of familiar works by Rameau, Offenbach, Berlioz, Rossini, Mozart, and even Hanon that Saint-Saëns quotes. While it was fun to hear the ‘originals,’ it was hardly necessary from an educational point of view; the most amusement was produced by Lucille Chung deliberately mangling one of Charles-Louis Hanon’s mind-numbing finger-exercises.
This review having grown to inappropriately Wagnerian proportions, it will be left to a separate piece by editor Michael Miller to report on the headline of the Festival, the performance of the opera Henry VIII on the final Sunday afternoon. I will just note here that it confirmed the impression offered by the best chamber and orchestral music previously heard that there is probably a lot more from this composer’s pen that is worth reviving, and that a festival devoted exclusively to his works would display the kind of breadth of style, variety of forms, and skillful handling of genre that we were able to experience on these two weekends. That such an event might struggle to see the light is as much a function of our own time and preferences, in which the Apollonian virtues of balance, taste, wit, virtuosity, and formal skill have taken second place to Dionysian characteristics. But perhaps for that very reason, such a revival might eventually prove all the more welcome.
- This reviewer was unable to attend Panel One, “Prodigy, Polymath, Globetrotter, and Reactionary” and Program 2, “Performing, Composing, and Arranging for Concert Life.” ↩
- Jann Pasler, ed., Saint-Saëns and his World, Princeton University Press, 2012 ↩
- As can be heard in the recording by Russian virtuoso Nikolai Petrov on the Classical Masters label. ↩