When you hear the name Camille Saint-Saëns, what music do you first think of?
I suspect most people might go for his famous work The Carnival Of The Animals. This suite, written in 1886, was regarded by the composer as ‘a piece of fun’ and, ironically, was not intended for publication. A whimsical work lasting only 25 minutes for two pianos and assorted other instruments, it is onomatopoeic in its depiction of various animals (elephant, swan, fossils etc). And then we reach the grand finale, captured beautifully as part of Disney’s Fantasia.
Here is a great clip. I would love to be able to yo-yo like the character in the film!
I don’t have this work in my iTunes. I know it well enough and have fond memories of playing it many years ago.
But I do have some other treasures that might interest you.
Saint-Saëns wrote the music for one opera – Sampson and Delila. Premiered in 1877, it began to gain traction as a standard part of the opera repertoire from the 1890s and has maintained this position ever since. There are two particular pieces of music which give it special fame: firstly, the Baccanalle from the third and final Act, when the priests become rowdy (ahem, have an orgy…..) prior to the sacrifice of Sampson; and secondly, the mezzo aria “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” , sung by Delila in the second Act when she has Sampson in her power. I have read that this aria is ‘arguably the most beautiful tune ever written for a mezzo’. High praise indeed.
I listened to many Mezzo performances in order to select the best one for you to listen to. I have to say that part of this will come down to individual preference with regard to type of voice (full, clear, more or less vibrato etc). But in the end, I went for this recording by Marylin Horne for its sheer power, beauty and passion. You really need to stay with it all the way to the end – there is a fabulous ‘je t’aime’ in the last few seconds that will knock your socks off.
And now we must turn to one of my all-time favourite works. A masterpiece. A stunning listen. Something which is so perfect and natural, it feels like it runs in my blood and does not need to be played externally for me to hear it.
Saint-Saëns’ Symphony Number 3 in C Minor, often known as ‘the organ symphony’ was written in 1886 at the peak of his career. It has been described in a book I have of the greatest classical works as ‘a grand, grand symphony’ and a ‘glorious work’. I totally agree.
Mr Tracks and I heard this work being performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall shortly after the great organ there had been renovated. What an amazing concert that was. The organ sounded fantastic. At its quietest, such as when it first breathes in during the poco adagio (second) movement, one could hear every rumble and whisper (147 stops and 9,997 speaking pipes, making it the second largest pipe organ in the UK). When it rolled in at full pelt, one did not only hear every note, but felt the heart of it beating in one’s own chest.
The work has a very ‘romantic’ feel about it. Have a listen to the third movement of this symphony and compare it with the third movement of something like the third movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Not exactly the same, obviously, but a similar flavour.
And how’s this for a finale? I don’t know about you but after that I have a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.
My work here is done.