Camille Saint-Saëns, 9 October 1835 – 16 December 1921, shown here in 1875
I’ve been hanging out at the ‘rents during this Thanksgiving holiday, and today have been hanging out mostly with my dad. With all the ailments that go along with his age, and then some, he enjoys nothing more than sitting in front of the Bose with a smokin’ classical CD under the laser.
So from that all-classical collection I mentioned in the Cream rising to the top post, I dared choose a CD that I’ve been avoiding for years—Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, a.k.a. the organ symphony—and we sat down for a music appreciation session. And I’ll be darned. Now I’m enamored with a dead classical composer.
This No. 3 was the bridge to adoration over the crazy Saint-Saëns waters I remembered as a kid to a more stereotypical symphonic sound with the added genius, not only of its hooky theme, but of using the fiercely spirited pipe organ as just another orchestral instrument, standing out no more than another of the many violins for the most part, and of interjecting some slick piano arpeggios similarly, well-placed and not overdone.
Classical music was in my ears every day of my formative years, and because it wasn’t my thing, it became as a barely noticed score playing behind the movie of my life. But sitting here today, reading the CD booklet, reading about who Camille Saint-Saëns was, what made him tick, along with listening to his No. 3, opened me up for a cognitive experience.
The guy was a prodigy and one of those fortunate few who could do many things exceptionally. In addition to music, he was a writer of plays, poems, and essays, essays not just on music but on philosophy, archaeology, astronomy and botany. That wows me but leaves me strangely lukewarm. The juice for me is in this guy’s countenance and personality.
He was noted as being restless, nervous, “irritable, whimsical, ironical, paradoxical, indulging in sudden changes of opinion, faithful to friends, appreciative of certain rivals,” to name a few of the mostly difficult things I find myself to be. Certainly, I don’t draw any parallels beyond that, but it’s always nice, amidst one’s mediocrity, to have a few trifling traits of a genius if you haven’t been named after one at least.
What challenged one amongst us could not love a genius who “was of less than average height, thin, nervous, sick-faced; with great and exposed forehead, hair habitually short, beard frosted. His eyes were almost level with his face. His eagle-beak would have excited the admiration of Sir Charles Napier, who once exclaimed: ‘Give me a man with plenty of nose.’”
But he also was a “man that knew the world and sparkled in conversation; fond of society; at ease and on equal terms with leaders in art, literature and fashion.”
I’ll take one. He’ll look nice next to Malmsteen.
Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society, and was given its world premiere by that orchestra in London on May 19, 1886.
Saint-Saëns wrote 5 symphonies but only 3 were numbered. His initial 4 symphonies were written by the age of 24. This last one, No. 3, he finished at age 51.
Photo of Camille Saint-Saëns at age 40 from Encyclopedia Britannica http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic-art/518193/13986/Camille-Saint-Saens-1875
Quotes in paragraphs 6 through 8 were from American critic, Philip Hale.
YouTube excerpt from the second movement of Symphony No. 3 played by the NHK Symphony Orchestra. Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume. Suntory Hall, Tokyo, 2008.