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