Notes for: July 31, 2018
For many years, no composer or pianist was more revered in France than Camille Saint-Saëns. The public adored him, and Berlioz and Liszt were among the many forward-looking musicians who admired him. (Liszt described him as “the greatest organist in the world.”) His vast output included works that remain staples of today’s classical concerts, including his Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”), the symphonic poem Dance macabre, the opera Samson et Delila, and of course Carnival of the Animals (which he wrote as a joke and, worried that it would hurt his reputation, refused to have it performed during his lifetime). His interests were wide-ranging. He was one of the first pianists to experiment with recordings, and he was the first famous composer to write music for the cinema, a 1908 film called “The Assassination of the Duke of Guise.” During his lifetime he was heaped with awards, and statues were erected to honor him.
Yet although he was once considered an innovator, Saint-Saëns stubbornly resisted Modernism, and as he got older his influence and reputation began to wane. His music was criticized for being elegant and beautifully written but lacking depth and emotion. In addition, his conservative, Romantic style put him at odds with France’s musical revolutionaries, especially Debussy. But he never stopped writing well-crafted, often inspired, harmonically and contrapuntally masterful music, and throughout his long life, audiences – especially in England and America – continued to revere him. Late works like the lyrical Fantaisie for Violin and Harp help to explain his enduring appeal.
Saint-Saëns wrote the single-movement Fantaisie for two sisters, the violinist Marianne Eisler and the harpist Clara Eisler. Like Villa-Lobos, he was interested in the possibilities when two instruments of very different timbres are paired. In this inventive, atmospheric work – which is filled with flowing melodies and bravura turns for both instrumentalists – the flute and the harp engage each other in an ever-changing pas de deux. At first, in the opening Poco allegretto, they take the roles expected of them, with the violin rising melodiously over the harp’s rippling arpeggios. From this gentlest of openings, as the music progresses through its five sections, the interactions grow in complexity. In the middle section, Vivo e grazioso, which begins with the violin skittering playfully over harp chords, the two relate more as equal partners. In the wonderfully paced Andante con moto, the harp keeps up an obsessive ostinato over which the violin weaves increasingly elaborate flourishes and the music grows in intensity. Throughout, there’s a silky smoothness to Saint-Saëns’s touch as he leads his duo from calm, through playfulness, whimsy, and passion, back to calm with a return to the balance and clarity of the opening.