Camille Saint-Saëns, 1835-1921
The lifespan of Camille Saint-Saëns accompanies an astonishing musical history beginning with the music of Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann and ending with the Jazz Age encapsulating Wagner, Debussy and Schoenberg in between. This timeframe spans the classical, romantic and modern periods and also witnesses the rise of French music in the modern canon of the classics. Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy who, at his public debut as a pianist at the age of 10, played a Mozart concerto and, for an encore, offered to play any of the 32 Beethoven sonatas from memory. He was a masterful organist who no less than Franz Liszt considered the greatest, particularly for his improvisations. Saint-Saëns was once considered quite “avant-garde” for championing the music of Liszt and Wagner particularly to his disapproving French countrymen despite his clever prowess in sight-reading their revolutionary orchestral scores at the piano. Yet, over time, Saint-Saëns developed an aversion to the march of historical innovation gradually despising the music of Wagner as well as his own compatriots Franck and Debussy. Eventually, he would be considered conservative, then a reactionary, hopelessly “classical” in his outlook and style. As performer and composer, all agreed that Saint-Saëns was a versatile and prolific master craftsman of great refinement and technical accomplishment, leading Berlioz to famously quip, “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience.” Yet, his historical reputation has suffered leaving us familiar with only a few chestnuts such as The Carnival of Animals, the “Organ” Symphony and a handful other orchestral and piano showpieces of great appeal and aplomb.
Nonetheless, Saint-Saëns wrote some very beautiful chamber music including two wonderful piano trios, a piano quartet and two string quartets written quite late in life, all of this unquestionably underplayed. Curiously, Saint-Saëns, who composed successfully in all the major classical forms and genres, did not turn to the esteemed string quartet until the age of 64 writing his first quartet on the brink of the 20th century in 1899 (six years after Debussy’s quartet). Saint-Saëns wrote his second and final string quartet some twenty years later in 1919 at the age of 84 (now many years after Ravel’s quartet). This may be one reason that Saint-Saëns gets overlooked: while history now had quartets by Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg Webern, Bartók and even Stravinsky, Saint-Saëns produced two lovely quartets that sounded much like Mendelssohn, Schumann and even Mozart, music not particularly “of his time.”
The String Quartet No. 2 in G major is a striking and skillful work of great charm and expression that is probably the finer of Saint-Saëns two quartets. It comprises three movements in modest “classical” proportions approximating the length of a string quartet from Mozart or Haydn with similar buoyancy, vitality, sparkle and transparency leading many to call Saint-Saëns “neo-classical.” The first movement is strikingly reminiscent of Mozart in his quartets dedicated to Haydn not only in thematic and expressive materials but also in use of primary motifs leading to fugal developments with dramatic contrapuntal textures. Saint-Saëns streamlines the sonata form by omitting the traditional repeat and telescoping the sense of development and variation.
The slow movement is more languid and sensual, suggesting Mozart’s chromaticisims as well as the modal exoticism of both Debussy and Ravel. At the same time, there is something pure and fundamental in the harmonic repose contrasting with the smoky perfume of a slight orientalism: a brief suggestion of Wagner’s Lohengrin, Beethoven’s late quartets, a holy grail. The third and final movement begins with a brief, introductory “interlude”, once again featuring that special chromatic indolence that is both Mozart and French with just a tinge of unresolved dissonance. The main body of the finale arrives with a whimsical pizzicato suggesting the pre-performance tuning of instruments in simple open fifths. The music assumes an animated rondo elegant and playful with a broad palette of figurations, flourishes and rich textures that escalate into the perpetual motion of a fugato and resolve with the finesse of classical cadences in the finely feathered gestures idiomatic of the string quartet. The vitality and effervescence of this music betrays nothing of the 84 year-old composer nor does its elegant “neo-classicism” suggest the soon-to-emerge modernity of 1920’s Paris. Rather, it is a classic, regardless and in spite of its time, a marvelous quartet for all time.