Official release: 2 April 2021
When a composer is also a virtuoso player of a certain instrument, rather unavoidably his or her output mirrors such a predilection. It normally translates in a high number of works written for that instrument, in a pronounced capability to write idiomatically for that instrument, and frequently in experimental innovations and explorations.
Many of these traits apply to Camille Saint-Saëns’ relationship zwith the organ, though not all of them. Saint-Saëns was one of the most prodigious child prodigies of all times in the musical field. He received his first music lessons from his aunt when he was not yet three years old, and is credited to have composed his first piano piece just one year later. By the time he was eleven, he debuted triumphally at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, performing two piano Concertos (one by Mozart and one by Beethoven), a work by Johann Sebastian Bach, and allegedly offering to the audience the possibility to choose any one of Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas as an encore!
The presence of Bach in the programme of the budding virtuoso is revealing. At that time, before 1850, Bach’s music was by no means either widespread or revered as it is today. Saint-Saëns was fortunate to receive music lessons from Alexandre Boëly, who championed Bach’s works in France; the teacher instilled his love for this repertoire in his student’s soul, and throughout his life Saint-Saëns would remain a passionate admirer of Bach. (Saint-Saëns was also one of the first subscribers to the complete edition of Bach’s works, the Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe).
Bach, of course, was one of the greatest organists of all times. And young Saint-Saëns was ready to follow in his footsteps. At the age of thirteen, the boy was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied piano, organ and composition. Only three years after enrolling, he was the first prize-winner in the organ class; when not yet twenty, he had already appointments as an organist and an organ teacher.
His career as a church organist began in 1853, at the church of Saint-Séverin, followed by that of Saint-Merry. In the latter church, the organ needed restorations: it was a historical instrument, which had been built in the year of Mozart’s death, 1791. In his capacity as the titular organist, the young musician superintended to the restoration, which was entrusted to Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, one of the greatest organ builders of all times. Cavaillé-Coll is recognized as the developer of the French “symphonic organ”, a musical symbol of the late Romanticism and a magnificent resource in the hands of musicians such as Widor, Franck, Fauré and many others. Saint-Saëns was going to frequently cooperate with him in later years. Interestingly, however, in the case of the Saint-Merry organ the young musician won a battle with the much older organ builder, who had intended to dismantle the older “mixtures”, which were perceived as out of fashion. Saint-Saëns was able to appreciate the historic value and aesthetic beauty of those features, and therefore preserved them for posterity.
When the restoration was completed, Saint-Saëns played at the organ’s inauguration. His programme was characteristic of his musical interests and orientation: he performed a Fugue (BWV 532) by Bach, a movement excerpted from Felix Mendelssohn’s Sixth Sonata, and his own Fantasy in E-flat major, which quickly became a landmark of the organ repertoire and still is one of the regrettably few organ works by Saint-Saëns which have earned enduring fame. It was dedicated to Georges Schmitt, who was the organist at the church of Saint-Sulpice. This magnificent piece, in two parts, reveals the young composer’s interest in different sources of inspiration. In the first part, the influence of Lefébure-Wély is discernible in its technical features; this section overflows with Saint-Saëns’ typically refined and fascinating traits. In the second part, the preeminence of the pedal part and the intricate pattern of imitations highlight Saint-Saëns’ interest in the German organ school, from Bach to Mendelssohn.
This piece remained a lifelong favourite of the composer himself, who played it more than fifty years later for A. M. Henderson, the Glaswegian musician and author of celebrated Musical Memories.
The 1857 inauguration was also a farewell: immediately after the performance, Saint-Saëns left Saint-Merry for La Madeleine, one of the most important churches (and organs) in Paris, where he would remain as the titular organist for some twenty years. His appointment at La Madeleine would be ended by the composer, who found it increasingly difficult to find a balance between his artistic exigencies and the needs (or idées fixes) of the congregation and clergy. In spite of this, Saint-Saëns continued to play the organ even after quitting his post at La Madeleine. During his appointment, his improvisations were famous and highly appreciated; sadly, due to their very nature, very few of them have been preserved in written form. Paradoxically, therefore, his years as an organist are not paralleled by a corresponding wealth of organ compositions.
It was only in the 1890s that Saint-Saëns seemed to recover his interest in the instrument. Possibly, this happened thanks to the appointment of one of his students, Albert Perilhou, to the post of organist at Saint-Séverin (1891); the composer used to play the concluding piece after the services which had been musically accompanied by his pupil.
In 1894, Saint-Saëns wrote his Trois Préludes et Fugues, op. 99, each dedicated to a famous organist of the era. The first, presented to Charles-Marie Widor, is once more a rather transparent homage to Bach, for example in the clever derivation of the Fugue subject from the musical material of the Prelude. The second pair, dedicated to Alexandre Guilmant, is more oriented to the Romantic language, even though its Fugue represent yet another reference to the Baroque tradition of quickly paced Fugues. The third pair, dedicated to Eugène Gigout (the organist of Saint-Augustin and a Professor of organ at the Conservatoire) opens with a breath-taking Toccata, from which, once more, the material of the Fugue is derived; this is a masterpiece of a compositional structure, both in its raw elements and in its well-calculated building of musical tension.
The first piece in this Da Vinci Classics album is the twin of Cyprès et lauriers, written in the very last years of Saint-Saëns’ life (both were composed in 1919). The musician, who had been born just a few years after Beethoven’s death, had had a long life: the first World War had brought incalculable and unimaginable suffering in his homeland and throughout Europe and the world. The musical language had evolved very quickly; Arnold Schönberg had written his Pierrot Lunaire seven years earlier. Saint-Saëns was still very revered and admired, surrounded by honours (such as an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge) and praise; but his style and his personality were increasingly perceived as belonging to an earlier era.
His Cyprès et lauriers op. 156 constitute a pair written to celebrate and commemorate the end of the war. The mixed feelings caused by this event are clearly mirrored by the two contrasting pieces. The first movement, titled after the cypress, the tree of the dead, is a funereal lament, mourning the lives taken by the war. The second, “laurels”, refers instead to the glory and honours tributed to the heroes. Originally, this piece was scored for organ and orchestra: after the touching lamentation for solo organ of Cyprès, the orchestra’s entrance provides enthusiasm, energy and more than a touch of military celebration and triumph. The piece is recorded here in a version for solo organ transcribed by Simone Vebber. The pair was premiered, in its original scoring, in Oostende, and was dedicated to Raymond Poincaré, the French President who had led the nation through the troubled waters of the war.
The Fantasy in C major op. 157 embodies Saint-Saëns’ itinerary as a composer, in comparison with the other Fantasy recorded here, the one in E-flat major which was also the composer’s first published work for the organ. Here the true spirit of the “fantasy” is found, in a wavering and fluctuating inspiration which discloses the undiminished creative power of its composer. There is a wealth of melodic and thematic ideas, which clearly counter the idea of an academic musician, steadily anchored to the traditions of the past. One of the most impressive passages of this piece, after a majestic and complex pedal arpeggio, is the Andantino, where the composer employs one of his favourite registers, that of the oboe. This piece masterfully manages to keep together the composer’s early influences, his passionate interest in early and ancient music, but also his curiosity for the music of the time, including allusions to the language of Ravel or Debussy. The composer’s mastery of form is observed even in the midst of this improvisatory piece, with repeated returns of earlier musical ideas; reminiscences of church music are also found, particularly in the choral-like melodies and harmonies.
The parable of Saint-Saëns as one of the major organists of his time and as an extraordinary composer of organ works is therefore discernible in the musical itinerary recorded here. In spite of a comparatively scanty output of organ works, all of his pieces for this instrument reveal his love for, knowledge of and familiarity with it, and represent true milestones of the repertoire, which deserve greater and more universal recognition.
Album notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Simone Vebber, was born in Trento, 1983. He has studied Ancient Organ with L. Ghielmi and in the Accademia Internazionale di Musica in Milan.
He graduated in Organ, Piano (cum laude) at the Conservatory “F. A. Bonporti” of Trento (Italy), and he received the “Diplome de Concert” at the Schola Cantorum of Paris, studying with J. P. Imbert and he had the First Prize with P. Pincemaille at the class “Organ Improvisation” at the CNR of Saint-Maur (Paris).
He participated in the Interpretation Masterclasses with L.Lohmann, J. C. Zehnder, Bine Bryndorf, Brett Leighton, and P. D. Peretti.
He won 1st Prize in Alessandria - Italy, in Pistoia – Italy, 1st Grand Prize and Public Prize at the “J. S. Bach Organ Competition” in Saint Pierre lès Nemour – France in 2005, 1st Prize at the “J.J.Fux” international organ competition in Graz 2010 (A), and the “J.S. Bach Prize” at the St. Albans Competition 2011.
He has recorded for Suonare Records, Radio Vaticana, Diapason Edition, Mascioni, ORF and Discantica.
He played concert in many Organ Festival (Wien,Tokyo, Riga, Paris, Milan, Rome, Warsaw, Rio de Janerio, etc.)
He played as soloist with important orchestras like the Mozart Orchestra condacted by Claudio Abbado.
Camille Saint-Säens: (b Paris, 9 Oct 1835; d Algiers, 16 Dec 1921). French composer, pianist, organist and writer. Like Mozart, to whom he was often compared, he was a brilliant craftsman, versatile and prolific, who contributed to every genre of French music. He was one of the leaders of the French musical renaissance of the 1870s.