Camille Saint-Saens 1835-1921
( Originally Published 1935 )
Symphony No. 3, in C minor, Opus 78 I. Adagio; Allegro moderato; Poco adagio
H. Allegro moderato; Presto; Maestoso; Allegro
And if you hunted through a hundred universes you could not find a man or artist so antithetical to Brahms of the Fourth symphony as Camille Saint-Saens. We shall speak here only of his most notable symphony, and not of the four short and Gallic symphonic poems ("Le Rovet d'Omphale," "Phaeton," "La jeunesse d'Hercule," "La danse macabre") which had, at the time of their composition, a special importance in French music.
Saint-Saens was, in the first place, a man of culture, of cosmopolitan experience, distinguished manners, travel and acquaintance with the great world. A brilliant musician and composer, a consummate technician and master of form, a true artist, he would nevertheless have wrought differently if he had possessed a greater soul. When Saint-Saens visited this country, in the season of 1906-1907, then a man of seventy-one years, to play with various orchestras and appear in other concerts of his own works, Philip Hale wrote of him in the Boston Symphony program books of that season (and others), in part as follows:
"Organist, pianist, caricaturist, dabbler in science, enamored of mathematics and astronomy, amateur comedian, feuilletonist, critic, traveler, archeologist —he has been, and is, a restless man.
"He is of less than average height, thin, nervous, sick-faced; with great and exposed forehead, hair habitually short, beard frosted. His eyes are almost level with his face. His eagle-beak would have excited the admiration of Sir Charles Napier, who once ex-claimed, `Give me a man with plenty of nose.' Irrittable whimsical, ironical, paradoxical, indulging in sudden changes of opinion, he is faithful to friends, appreciative of certain rivals, kindly disposed towards young composers, zealous in practical assistance as well as in verbal encouragement. A man that knows the world and sparkles in conversation; fond of society; at ease and on equal terms with Leaders in art, literature, fashion. A man whose Monday receptions were famous throughout Paris, eagerly attended by `Tout Paris'; yet never so happy as when playing Calchas to Bizet's or Regnault's Helen in C)ffenbach's delightful `La Belle Helene' or impersonating in an extraordinary costume Gounod's Marguerite surprised by the jewels.... A Parisian from crown to sole; and yet a nomad...
"In the face of difficulties, discouragement, misunderstanding, sneers, he has worked steadily since his youth and always to the best of his ability, for righteousness in absolute music; he endeavored to introduce into French music thoughtfulness and sincerity for the advantage and the glory of the country that he so dearly loves."
The highest praise should be Saint-Saens's for his clear-headedness, conscience, and alertness in promoting the cause of symphonic music in France; for the fact that he fought prejudice and routine, and was consistently a pioneer of progress. When he composed his Third and most ambitious symphony, it was explained to the public that "the time has come for the symphony to benefit by the progress of modern instrumentation, and he [Saint-Saens] therefore establishes his orchestra as follows: woodwind—three flutes, two oboes, one English horn, two clarinets, one bass clarinet, two bassoons, one double-bassoon; brass—four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, one tuba; three kettledrums; organ; piano (now for two hands, now for four) ; one triangle, a pair of cymbals, bass-drum, and the usual strings." An exposition, as Saint-Saens designed it, of what the symphony formally and orchestrally had come to in his day.
This score is in fact a compendium of the things that had been done in symphonic composition up to that time (1886), particularly as regarded the trans-formation as well as the development of themes, and the attempt to give greater cohesiveness to the structure. The work is dedicated to Franz Liszt, between whom and Saint-Saens there was much friendship and esteem, and Liszt's influence is clear in this symphony. In place of the traditional four movements, here are two, each part containing within itself two movements, joined together and roughly corresponding to those of the classic form. The first part projects a grave introduction, followed by a quicker section, which leads without a break into the equivalent of the slow movement of Haydn and Beethoven. The opening of the second part is freely in the manner of a scherzo, and it connects with the finale, ushered in by a majestic theme for trombone, tuba and double-basses. All the themes of the symphony have relation to each other. The theme heard after the introduction of the first part has a chance resemblance to the string accompaniment of the first theme of Schubert's "Unfinished" symphony. The principal melody of the slow movement, given the strings with organ accompaniment, is of ecclesiastical character. There is some-thing of the sardonic in the energetic phrases which open the second part of the symphony. These phrases are in dramatic contrast to the majestic theme of the finale, already referred to, and these two themes might be considered as religious and demoniac elements con-tending for the mastery. Under such a definition the good triumphs; the evil is conquered and absorbed by it. The final passage, distinguished by orchestral pomp and flourish of trumpets, is a last transformation of the first theme of the symphony. Thus the .symphony, which is Saint-Saens's most pretentious work for orchestra, and too grand in its form for the actual strength of his ideas, is, on the other hand, anticipation of the so-called "cyclic" symphonies of Cesar Franck and Vincent d'Indy and others of a later day of French music, of which Saint-Saens is here revealed as one of the forerunners. The C minor symphony is testimony to his mastery, his seriousness, his clear realization of the significance of musical tendencies of his time. But it is a work symptomatic and not creative of a period.