Acclaimed as one of the greatest musical prodigies of the 19th century, Camille Saint-Saëns lived a long and busy life as a teacher, performer, scholar, and critic, as well as a composer. Born in 1835, when Donizetti, Rossini, Schumann, Chopin and Mendelssohn were still active, he lived long enough to write a film score, L’Assassinat du duc de Guise (1908); his life encompassed those of Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Mahler, and Debussy. His music’s place in the repertoire seems secure, given such pieces as the Third Symphony, the even-numbered piano concertos, the Cello Concerto, The Carnival of the Animals, Danse macabre, and Samson and Delilah, one of his 13 (!) operas. Could you have named even six operas of his? I know I couldn’t have. I was aware of La Princesse jaune (because I knew the overture) and Henry VIII (because I knew the ballet music). I will now save you the trouble of looking them up; in order of composition, they are: Le Timbre d’argent, La Princesse jaune, Samson et Dalila, Étienne Marcel, Henry VIII, Proserpine, Ascanio, Phryné, Frédégonde, Les Barbares, Hélène, L’Ancêtre, and Déjanire. This CD presents one of the rare opportunities to hear any music from the obscure ones, meaning nearly all of them. The number of his compositions in the “standard” repertoire is but a fraction of his output. Like such later peers as Reger, Milhaud, Hovhannes, and Villa-Lobos, he was remarkably prolific. He himself said, ‘I produce music as easily as an apple tree produces apples.’ I sometimes wonder what these composers actually thought of some of the stuff they were turning out. Hindemith once reputedly confessed (to Otto Leuning), ’80 percent of what I wrote is crap...but I had to write it so I could write the other 20 percent.’
The dances from Henry VIII come at the end of Act II. They were used to entertaining effect in Irish Fantasy, a ballet by Jacques d’Ambroise that I wish the New York City Ballet would revive...At least Henry VIII has been revived a few times in recent years and even recorded, which I doubt is the case with the other three operas represented on this collection.
Ascanio is set in the court of Francis I in 1559. The ballet is a divertissement performed for the kings of France and Spain in the Fontainebleau gardens. Since the
principal characters are the gods of antiquity, Saint-Saëns, who edited the music of Rameau, provided a score that is, for the most part, in antique style, though he also throws in a very “modern” waltz. One of the old-style tunes was also used by Peter Warlock in his Capriol Suite.
There is now an equestrian statue of Étienne Marcel in Paris, honouring one who led a revolt against the Dauphin in 1358 and was murdered shortly thereafter. Act III begins with six lively dances, which include a musette and a pavane though the composer makes no conspicuous attempt to write in olden style and the dominant pieces are a tuneful waltz and an inevitable (?) Gypsy dance.
From 1559 and 1358, we travel back further, to 105 B.C. for the setting of Les Barbares, a tale of the conflict between the Gauls and Barbarians (Germans, in this case). The German chief spares the lives of his Gallic prisoners when the Vestal Virgin allows him to have his way with her. After the Barbarians depart, there is a celebration, which means an excuse for dancing, in this case, to a polonaise and what sounds like a tarantella. The two other selections from the opera are not dance numbers – a very serious and un-balletic 15 minute prologue to the opera and a briefer prelude to Act III.
The rich-sounding recording was made at Robert Blackwood Hall in Melbourne, Australia. It is available in the SACD format.