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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Saint-Sans Has His Day

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“Organist, pianist, caricaturist, dabbler in science, enamored of mathematics and astronomy, amateur comedian, critic, traveler, archaeologist—he is a restless man.” So American music critic Philip Hale described French composer Camille Saint-Sans (1835-1921), who towered over French musical life like no one had since Jean-Baptiste Lully some two centuries before.

Saint-Sans would have excelled in any intellectual pursuit, but we can be grateful he chose music. Indeed, he produced over 600 works in various styles and genres over the course of his long life, and was once quoted as saying he produced music “as an apple tree produces apples.” His gifts were natural and his life largely untroubled, making him kind of a French Mendelssohn.

Saint-Sans’ Danse Macabre, Op. 40 (1874), a waltz-fantasy for violin and orchestra, has long been a concert hall favorite. A setting of a poem by Henri Cazalis (1840-1909), it portrays Death as a fiddler rousing skeletons to dance to his tune, with daybreak finally causing the apparitions to disperse as quickly and mysteriously as they were conjured.

Of Saint-Sans’ five piano concertos only the second has managed to maintain a tenuous hold on the contemporary concert stage. While the others should not be neglected, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22 (1868) deserves to be heard more often. Suggested to him by eminent Russian composer-pianist Anton Rubinstein (1829-94) for an upcoming Paris concert, Saint-Sans composed this work in a remarkable 17 days. While such haste didn’t make for a particularly successful debut performance, the concerto caught on with subsequent performances and became Saint-Sans’ most popular. Unusual for a concerto, the work begins with a solemn piano cadenza, the melancholy theme eventually wending its way through the orchestra and elaborated upon with consummate skill. Rather than the typical slow second movement, Saint-Sans provided a mischievous scherzo—one of the most popular of such in the keyboard literature. The Presto finale fairly glitters with dramatic agitation, rather well suited to the work’s unusual G Minor home key.

As with his concertos, Saint-Sans composed five symphonies, only one of which, Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78 (1886), is ever heard today. Conceived on a grand scale, it is commonly known as The Organ Symphony because of the important role that instrument plays in the work—not as a solo but as an interwoven strand of the orchestral fabric. Within its unorthodox two-movement layout are actually all four of the conventional symphonic movements, alternating fast-slow-fast-slow. Saint-Sans deftly saves the organ’s full voice for the Maestoso-Allegro finale, where it sounds triumphant chords right to the very end.

This remarkable all-Saint-Sans concert, in which three of his most successful and popular works are presented together, will be performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Edo de Waart at Uihlein Hall on May 28 and 29. The soloist for the G Minor concerto is Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski, who has performed all over the world and has recorded several recital albums for EMI Classics.