Camille Saint-Saëns

David Nice’s terrific Russian Music Course started up again last week, with Steven Isserlis and Elizabeth Wilson as guests. “But Saint-Saëns isn’t Russian,” you might say, and you would be right.

In searching around for performances featuring Isserlis, however, I ran across an Isserlis CD, Cello Music from Proust’s Salons, which in turn led me to this:

The piece, included on the CD albeit with a different pianist, is Cello Sonata No 1 in C minor, Op 32 (1872) by Camille Saint-Saëns, of which the composer’s mother didn’t entirely approve:

Charles-Marie Widor told the story of the composition of the third movement. After attending the successful first performance of the Sonata, Saint-Saëns, surprised that his mother had made no comment on the piece, asked: ‘Don’t you have anything to say? Aren’t you pleased?’ Mme. Saint-Saëns then said she liked the first two movements, but not the finale. A few days later he triumphantly told her: ‘I have composed a new finale! Do you want to hear it?’ This is the finale we know today. It contains quotes from the first act of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine—possibly a favourite of Saint-Saëns’s mother’s.

In his comments on the CD, Isserlis, with typical dry wit, wrote:

A few years ago, I embarked upon the major project of reading Proust’s near-endless masterpiece ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’; it took me – with some lengthy breaks – about eighteen months. Amazing though it was, I can’t say that I became a complete Proust nut, as some of my friends have become (the pianist Jeremy Denk, for one). There were some bits I couldn’t wait to finish! But there is so much that is wonderful, almost needless to say – including the descriptions of salon hosts/hostesses and guests listening to music, many of which are absolutely hilarious.

Here’s Isserlis on the subject of Saint-Saëns:

“Saint-Saëns is famous, of course; but people are so snobbish about him! They consistently describe him as a third-rate composer. Rubbish, say I; of course, not all his music is great, by any means – but a lot of it isn’t MEANT to be great, in the sense of a profound statement about life and the human condition. That doesn’t make him a bad composer! He produced music, as he put it, as an apple-tree produces apples – almost as if he couldn’t help it. Some of it is just meant to entertain, some of it is deeper; his ‘Requiem’, for instance, is a seriously beautiful work. I don’t know nearly enough Saint-Saens; but of the pieces I do know, there’s not one that I don’t like – and several that I love. Besides, the man was astonishing: he was a classical scholar, a respected astronomer (who designed his own telescope) , a published poet, a philosopher and logician, a playwright, a travel writer, a brilliant mathematician, an animal rights activist, as well as being an amazing pianist, a fine conductor, and possibly the greatest organist of his day. He composed, too. What a phenomenon! I wonder whether the people who are sniffy about him could match that range of achievements…”

Bonus Track 1

Bonus Track 2

There are many sources for image at the head of the post. Here is one.

4 thoughts on “Isserlis+Denk+Saint-Saëns

  1. Curt Barnes

    Thanks so much for posting the St-Saens! I confess I’ve been one of the “snobs” about the composer (especially knowing that he walked out on the debut of Rite of Spring), but my snobbery has given way to an acknowledgement that conservative composers can do thrilling, accomplished work and need not be graded by the Modernist calendar. Isserlis and Denk could hardly be surpassed, though the Spotify version with the other pianist affords better audio, on my equipment, anyway. Isserlis is everything you need in a cellist, even considering that this must be a golden age for great cellists. I, for one, am in hog heaven.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      I am delighted you enjoyed the Saint-Saens–it’s always great to be in your musical company, and you always have entertaining comments to make, as well. I wasn’t familiar with the sonata, and I’m very glad it’s Isserlis, with Denk, who offered the introduction–though, as you say, the Spotify version does have better audio, and Connie Shih, the pianist on the recording, is excellent. (I’ve put on my wish list to buy the Proust salon CD.)

  2. Steve Schwartzman

    Hi, Susan. Long time. How have you been faring? Eve and I are a month past our second vaccinations, so the world seems on the verge of opening back up.

    I didn’t know about all of Saint-Saëns’s non-musical pursuits. I’ve long thought of doing an article about the mathematical accomplishments of people who are famous for other things, like Benjamin Franklin inventing a kind of magic square while being bored in meetings of the legislature. And who would have expected that American president James. A Garfield had earlier come up with an original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hi, there! Glad to hear you are both fully vaxed, with room to spare. We also, and it is a great relief. Re Saint-Saëns’ non-musical pursuits, if I knew at one time, I can only say I’d forgotten, so enjoyed Isserlis on the topic. Your idea for an article sounds like a fun one, and your two examples are great ones.

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