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Camille Saint-Saens (1835 - 1921)


Bacchanal from "Samson & Delilah", Op. 47

Saint-Saens originally conceived Samson & Delilah as an oratorio. His librettist however convinced him that the dramatic situations of the plot were far better exploited in a staged opera. Unfortunately, biblical settings as subjects for an opera were frowned upon, and consequently the finished opera found no takers among French promoters. His friend Franz Liszt helped to get the opera premiered in Germany in December 1877. However, it took another 13 years before Samson & Delilah was produced in France, at Rouen, and later that same year, 1890, in Paris.

A single concert performance was given in 1893, in English, at London's Covent Garden. The opera was subsequently banned by the Lord Chamberlain, on religious grounds. The first staging at Covent Garden took place after the ban was lifted in 1909, on the order of King Edward VII who, it is said, "rather enjoyed the Bacchanal".

Danse Macabre, Op.14

Camille Saint-Saens was the driving force in rescuing French music from the trivial sterility to which it had largely sunk in the mid 19th century; a rescue so effective that by 1910, Paris had become the centre of the European avant-garde in music - and indeed all the arts. Saint-Saens himself was a musical prodigy in his youth, and developed into an intelligent and versatile composer, teacher, pianist and critic. As a composer he was equally at home in opera, symphonies, concertos, songs and chamber music. He also had a ready wit and sense of humour, and even in his old age was still adventurous - he wrote a score for one of the very earliest films of the French cinema.

Danse Macabre was written in 1874, and has a major solo violin part. The player is asked to tune the top string, the E string, down a semitone to E flat, in order to give a devilish discordance to the music.

Symphony No. 3 "Organ", Op. 78
I. Andante - Allegro; Adagio
II Allegro - Presto; Maestoso

No French composer has ever enjoyed more international esteem with his contemporaries than Camille Saint-Saens. Very prolific, his output includes three symphonies, two cello concertos, three violin concertos and five piano concertos. He also wrote many operas, of which "Samson and Delilah" is still often performed. He travelled widely in Europe, visiting London several times, and also visiting Russia, North Africa, the USA, and even South America, which he visited at the age of 81! He was a pianist and organist himself, being the soloist in the first performances of his first and third piano concertos, and was organist at the church of the Madeleine in Paris for almost 20 years.

Most of his work is little played now, being a little too glib (Victorian?) for modern taste. His works are all melodic, pleasant to listen to and richly orchestrated, but rarely reaching any great emotional depths. Curiously, his two works most often performed now - this symphony and the Carnival of the Animals - were both written in the same year: 1886.

The third symphony was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society, and first performed in London on 19th May 1886 under the composer's direction. The nickname comes from the prominent part for the organ, though even more unusual is the piano part requiring two players. It is cast in two movements, though since each movement is a running together of two sections, it can be seen as a normal four movement symphony with each pair of movements linked. After a short slow introduction, the allegro presents two themes; the first is whispered on violins at once, the second is a more flowing tune derived from the slow introduction. Both themes are developed, separately and together, in the body of the movement, before the tempo unwinds and we move, with the organ now, into the adagio. This calm and peaceful movement is supported by the organ; the main theme glows lovingly, like sunlight through deep stained glass.

The second movement starts vigorously, like a symphonic scherzo and trio. After a fast allegro, the presto section is faster still. Both allegro and presto are repeated, but the presto repeat is cut short, the tempo again relaxes .... and a massive C major on the organ announces the finale proper. The splendid theme is derived from the first movement, wholly transformed, and is presented on organ and strings in turn - notice the decoration by the piano duet. After development, including an energetic fugal section, the music leads inexorably to its triumphant conclusion. "I have given everything that I had to give;" declared Saint-Saens "what I have done here I shall never do again."

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