Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)
Symphony in A major (c.1850) &
Symphony no. 1 in Eb major (1853)
I do know those who profess to find Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony an overblown bore. I'm afraid I cannot agree with them. After having sat through so many dull or unexceptional symphonies of its period, it seems to me to stand out all the more as a work of towering originality and sparkling execution, sounding completely unlike anything else. "I gave it everything I had to give", the composer said of it, and what he had to give was not only technical brilliance and extraordinary aural imagination but an elegant refinement of style pretty much unique amongst composers of his generation.
Understandably, no one really uses the number Saint-Saens attached to his most ambitious orchestral work, which is strictly inaccurate anyway. In fact, his Symphony no. 3 was preceded by four others, all completed by the time he was 25 and only two of which he wished to acknowledge. Despite the considerable gap in time and experience that separates them from their imposing companion of 1886, they are all well worth hearing. The finest of them is probably no. 2 in A minor (Op. 55), in its way rather an experimental piece, with an extraordinary scalic slow introduction leading off into a first movement that cleverly fuses Sonata Form development with elaborate fugal workings, followed by a stately Baroque style slow dance, a rhythmically inventive scherzo and an exhilarating tarantella finale. At around 25 minutes, it is admirably concise, sustains a compelling tonal tension throughout, and is distinguished - like much of Saint-Saens' best music - by an admirable clarity of line. It should certainly feature more centrally in the ossified modern concert repertoire and, if you are already acquainted with it, I'm sure you will join me in urging those less fortunate to seek it out.
I have decided, however, to represent Saint-Saens the symphonist with a double bill of his two teenage works in the form, partly because they are, if anything, even more neglected than no. 2, but also because they are striking waymarks in the evolution of the mature composer. And because they're both great fun.
Clearly, Saint-Saens considered the early A major Symphony to be little more than apprentice work. (The Urbs Roma Symphony he wrote between nos. 1 and 2 he appears - rather harshly - to have judged a failure.) Maybe it just falls short of the individuality and effervescence of the sparkling, note perfect C major symphony that Bizet started on his seventeenth birthday (which Bizet, coincidentally, would also follow up with a "Rome" Symphony he was unhappy with). Nonetheless, it is a perfectly entertaining accomplishment that fully deserves to be preserved as part of the Saint-Saens' canon and is a clear proclamation of his life-long orientation towards the classical perfection of Mozart and Haydn, rather than the full-blown romanticism of the post-Beethoven Austro-German tradition. After a genuinely graceful, typically succinct, Slow Introduction the First Movement is actually dominated by the same four-note motif that leads of the Finale of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. The use the boy composer makes of it goes well beyond pastiche, as do the teasing Haydnesque silences that interrupt the second subject. The third movement Scherzo, with its lovely light wind scoring, is another example of classical models not just imitated, but fully assimilated within an evolving personal style.
A mere three years later, in his first numbered symphony, the eighteen-year old Camille is expressing a new enthusiasm - rather transparently for the music of Berlioz. (The admiration was mutual.) It is the only one of the four youthful symphonies to be scored for large orchestra and more than makes up for the others' modesty of means by employing a vast ensemble, including cornets, saxhorns, two sets of timpani, prominent cymbals and no fewer than four harps, though it should be said that the full forces are not unleashed until the grandiose ceremonial march finale. (The sonorous fuge that forms the centre of this movement is a clear precursor to the one he was to provide at the climax of his best known symphony three and a half decades later.) Before that, the influence of the senior composer shows up in more subtle ways, especially in the 9/8 Slow Movement, with its layered string tremolos and tendency to break its melodic line up into tiny sighing violin phrases. If the opening movement veers towards the (not un-enjoyably) bombastic, the second movement scherzo, where a charming, meandering oboe melody is interrupted by crisp wind fanfares is both original and beguiling.
Neither of these works will replace the Organ Symphony in concert programmes or the classical music audience's affections, but as a pair they show two engaging and important sides of their creator's personality - relatively, a fundamentally classical outlook and a fondness for extravagant innovation. Although often labeled a conservative, Saint-Saens was always perfectly up for trying something new. He was the first significant composer to write for the saxophone and the xylophone, wrote the the first concert work for a modern symphonic wind orchestra, and composed the first ever specially designed film score. Underlying all his activity, however, was a commitment to ideals of grace and good taste that he attached himself to early on and never abandoned. His large output does include its share of dull and disappointing music, but the best of it is bright, life-enhancing, matchless in craft and joyously free of the homogenizing influences that were busy stifling all but the very greatest of his Teutonic contemporaries.
These two early symphonies hardly show him at his best, but are never dull, and a welcome reminder that the bearded, bowler-hatted man in a three piece suit familiar from photographs was once a youth overflowing with natural enthusiasm and precocious talent. So, let a little Gallic spirit in, and give them a try.