Pachelbel, Albinoni, Bruch, Barber, Humperdinck. While not exactly “one-hit wonders”,
they all belong to that pitiable sub-set of composers who have written one work
which is vastly more popular than all their others, obscuring appreciation of
their broader achievement.
their number can be added the name of Camille Saint-Saëns, whose “Carnival of
the Animals” - a musical depiction of hens, tortoises, fish and (most famously)
a swan - remains by far his best known composition, not least because it is
often used to introduce children to the attractions of classical music.
is irony here: in his lifetime Saint-Saëns never allowed the “Carnival” to be
published, viewing it as a piece of harmless fun, but not typical of the more
serious work on which he wished to build a lasting reputation. A century before
the age of social media soundbites and instantaneous global communication,
Saint-Saëns already fully understood the perils of adventitious celebrity, and
wished to avoid it.
the compositions by Saint-Saëns still clamouring for fuller recognition today -
he wrote over 300 works in total - is his substantial body of chamber music.
Sonatas for bassoon, oboe, clarinet, cello and violin are part of it, while for
larger combinations of instruments there are two string quartets, a piano
quartet and quintet, a septet, and the two piano trios featured on this
first of these, the Piano Trio No. 1 in F major, Op. 18, dates from 1863.
Though still in his twenties, Saint-Saëns already had a sizeable quantity of
music behind him, including his first two numbered symphonies and a pair of
violin concertos. So it is not surprising to find that the opening movement of
the Op. 18 trio already has such a feeling of technical assurance and fluidity
about it. The blithe, insouciant melody with which the cello makes its initial
entry is immediately imitated by the violin, both instruments skipping along
lightly, like new-born lambs in a pleasantly open pasture.
is, though, the piano which soon becomes the most irrepressibly active of the
three gambolling partners. Its cascading flourishes of notes have an
unstoppably joyful quality, and incidentally provide an insight into
Saint-Saëns the pianist: aged 28, he had been a brilliant virtuoso player for
years already, and his delight in public performance can be clearly felt in
this opening, Allegro vivace movement.
clouded by minor key colourations and some turbulence in its central section,
the mood elsewhere is gracefully ebullient, recalling Mozart (a composer
Saint-Saëns idolised) in its elegance. Was it inspired by a trip that
Saint-Saëns made to the idyllic countryside of the Auvergne, as biographers
have suggested? Possibly: the music has a distinctly al fresco feeling to it.
second movement has rustic connotations too, in the drone effect created at the
outset by the violin and cello intoning single notes, as though emulating a
medieval fiddle or a hurdy-gurdy. The gently melancholy tune enunciated first
by the cello has a folk-like quality which shows a brighter, more yielding side
of its nature in the movement’s middle section. The drone material resurfaces
in the coda, somehow deepened and a touch desolate.
residue of vulnerable introspection is blown away in the skittering Scherzo, a
delightfully nimble dance whose steps are marked by fine-tooled pizzicatos and
dotted rhythms in the piano. The rippling finale is, by comparison, more
relaxed in metabolism. A surprising amount of it is marked to be played
quietly, or very quietly, with a light, concessive touch from the players. The
sense of airy liberation that results is like a freshening breeze in
summertime: nothing, it seems, can blot the simple pleasures of the passing
moment, or return the happy daydreamer to more mundane reality.
was nearly three decades before Saint-Saëns returned to the piano trio format,
and when he did the results were very different. In the years between,
Saint-Saëns married (abandoning his wife six years later), became an
internationally successful composer, and suffered (in 1888) the death of his
beloved mother, an event which affected him deeply.
some of Saint-Saëns’ personal feelings and tribulations seep into the Piano
Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 92 (1892), an altogether more serious-sounding work
than its Op. 18 predecessor? Perhaps, although Saint-Saëns himself cautioned
strongly against the incorporation of subjective emotions into music. “Art is
intended to create beauty and character”, he wrote. “Feeling only comes
afterwards and art can very well do without it. In fact, it is very much better
off when it does”.
comments notwithstanding, it is virtually impossible not to hear disquiet and
agitation in the E minor Trio’s opening movement, with its swirling piano part
and churning development section. Vestiges of instability persist in the second
movement Allegretto, whose attempts to set a carefree dance in motion are
undermined by the jittery five-in-a-bar time signature, and a piano part that
shoots off nervously in unpredictable directions, at one point provoking the
violin and cello to behave in similar fashion.
emotional temperature abates to gently wistful in the central Andante con moto,
a movement often compared to Schumann, whose music Saint-Saëns strongly
advocated. The short, waltz-time movement which follows marks a blithe-spirited
return to the world of the Op. 18 Trio, its nimble playfulness intended as an
opportunity for the listener to catch a moment of relaxation before the renewed
seriousness of the finale.
mood of that concluding movement is immediately more austere. All three
instruments toy with contrapuntal material, as though seeking a balanced
accommodation between the disparate strands of feeling expressed earlier in the
Trio. A jittery, hyperactive fugal episode launched on violin dominates the
middle section, eventually generating a roiling climax, underpinned by
pummelling chord-work on the piano. A brief interlude of calm and respite
follows, like sunshine after a heavy shower of rain, before the turbulence
recommences. All three instruments join in driving the Trio to a truculent,
only comes afterwards”. Is it possible to listen to the E minor Trio without
concluding that Saint-Saëns has broken his own rules about keeping private
emotions out of music? Does it not clearly communicate states of mind and spirit
that are all too human in their mingling of delight, trouble and trepidation?
are difficult questions to answer. Further clues about the enigmatic
relationship between Saint-Saëns’ personal life and his music are, though,
offered in La Muse et le poète, a work that is little known, especially in the
original version for piano trio heard in this recording.
is a partly whimsical piece, expressing - perhaps - nostalgia for the past (the
work was almost embarrassingly out of date stylistically by 1909, the year of
its composition). Are there also, in the sweetly melancholy, impassioned,
eventually optimistic exchanges between the violin and cello, elements of
something deeper and more personal, simmering under without ever fully breaking
is certainly possible. An aborted marriage, the death of two infant children,
and the passing of his mother - these traumatic events all shook Saint-Saëns
deeply. Scholars have also argued that for much of his adult life he suppressed
feelings of homosexuality, perhaps seeking a clandestine outlet for them on his
trips to North Africa.
the typically spry, elegant surfaces of his music darker thoughts and impulses
do often seem to loiter. As the music writer Jessica Duchen aptly puts it: “All
the fluidity, flamboyance and sparkle was effectively a mask for a troubled man
who preferred not to betray the darker side of his soul. As with many great
comedians, his art concealed an existence that contained more than its fair
share of tragedy”.
© Terry Blain