Two Unconnected Centenaries

It has been a year of online events. Long may it continue. Walking down Dawson Street in Dublin recently, I saw a poster for an event that I knew I could not attend. Little did I know it will also be online. It’s some talks to make the centenary of Anglo-Irish treaty debates and information about it can be found here.

Greater opportunities to hear music online is also a nice development. As the centenary of Camille Saint Saens (1835-1921) is “now”, the idea of revisiting music that he composed in each decade of his life, from the 1840s to the 1920s, is rather fascinating to me, in part because so little of it is heard. So, this evening, I’ll share a thought along those lines in the form of a rambling, improvised essay, or blog.

The first piece I ever heard by him, his first violin sonata (1885), has a novel connection because its refrain made a big impression on Marcel Proust. It made an impression on me too, but it hasn’t inspired me to write fiction…yet. The second piece I ever heard by him, a sort of harp concerto (1918) amazed me for being “neo-classical” (not of the 18th century but not of its own time either) and I still think of it as a gem in that vein. The third piece I ever heard by him, a clarinet sonata (1921) was in part carefree and in part like an elegy: it was almost a penultimate composition, written aged 86, and perhaps all the more striking for that. For many, however, his most striking, or well-known, tune was his Dance Macabre, a sort of symphonic poem, but to me his best piece in that vein was from a year earlier, Phaeton (1874), which depicts, in “programme” music, the Greek legend of an impulsive youth who takes a ride in a flying chariot that he cannot control and so will soon be doomed, after a wee bit of excitement. Cinematic music essentially and, thirty-four years later, Saint-Saens became the first composer to write a film soundtrack, but, truth be told, it isn’t any good. What he was always good at was coming up with nice melodies. In my opinion, a little known gem from his first decade of great fame, the 1860s (when he wrote some often performed virtuoso pieces), was this romance from a cello suite (1862), the refrain of which makes me think of the theme music from that old Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes show with great cinematography and some over the top acting. “Nice”. At that time, Saint Saens’ only job was as a church organist but, in addition to composing large scale works, he had already written many songs, one of the first of which actually drew upon an authentically-dodgy (Ossianic) “rising of the moon” legend (1853) that Irish writers later picked up on. Saint Saens was first published in 1853, at the age of eighteen, but he was giving concerts by the age of ten, had written his first piece of sheet music aged three, and wrote his first symphony at the age of thirteen, in 1848, or possibly 1850, which, although never published and sonically derivative, is surely a remarkable feat for a kid. By middle age, or the 1890s, however, his star had dwindled in many people’s eyes. He had started writing books and spent his time travelling, far out of the public eye, but his travelogue pieces, like this piano solo from 1895, often demonstrated a likeable exoticism. This perhaps reached its peak when he did a piece called “La Foi” during the 1900s that, despite his former career as a church organist, meant “the faith” of an ancient Egyptian religion, not something living. But Phaeton notwithstanding, programme music wasn’t really “his thing” and his exoticism had limits too. But, perhaps anticipating future trends, he did occasionally show an interest in composing music for unusual combinations of instruments. For instance, this fantasy from 1907 is, to the best of my knowledge, the only duo written for violin & harp. So that’s that: a sample of eight or nine decades of compositions (one per decade), from the time of “the famine” to “the treaty” in the insular Irish chronology of time, by a French composer whose style was perhaps undramatic but certainly prosaic. That prosaic quality was his merit or his failing to different ears, indicating excellence in form to some, a lack of inspiration to others, but for me, it is what makes his music solidly interesting, even if sometimes dull. There have apparently been centenary events in France and some publications, the most notable of which may be this one, but why read when you can just listen? There’s the beauty of music and with that thought this digression shall cease.

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