Celebrating Saint-Saëns

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Centenary years offer an opportunity to celebrate and perhaps reevaluate the works of significant composers from earlier times, and in 2021 (to be precise, on 16th December) we mark the 100-year anniversary of the death of the great French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921).

Though best known for orchestral works, including the universally-known Carnival of the Animals, the Danse macabre, the ‘Organ’ Symphony, and his concertos (including five for piano and orchestra), Saint-Saëns also composed a significant body of solo piano music which, these days, is too little played.

This is no doubt in part because his Liszt-inspired writing renders Saint-Saëns’ solo piano music inaccessible to all but the most advanced virtuosi. Pedagogy occupied little of the composer’s time: a fairly brief stint at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris and thereafter occasional coaching (his students including Godowsky). The result: no music composed for formative educational purposes, pre-diploma.

Saint-Saëns’ legacy has suffered in other ways too, including a not entirely fair perception that his music, though sparkling, is essentially superficial. His infamous derision for younger contemporaries such as Debussy and Milhaud no-doubt further alienated him from the public of his later years.

In this revisitation and celebration of Saint-Saëns’ piano music, I will explore three publications from Éditions Durand, who are regarded as the definitive publishers of this repertoire: Œuvres pour piano books I and II, and The Best of Saint-Saëns, a collection of thirteen miscellaneous pieces.

Œuvres pour piano I

The first of two urtext editions researched and compiled by Gérald Hugon, introduced by Sabina Teller Ratner and published in 2006/7, this superb edition incorporates what are perhaps Saint-Saëns most significant contributions to the solo piano repertoire: his Études.

There are three sets, each comprising six works:

  • Six Études, 1ere Livre, op.52 (1877)
  • Six Études, 2e Livre, op.111 (1899)
  • Six Études pour la main gauche seule, op.135 (1912)

The twelve études of the first two sets were individually dedicated to leading performers who might propagate Saint-Saëns’ music. The composer himself also performed some of them in recitals.

Each Étude is centred on a particular difficulty, the titles at times describing technical aspects being featured, such as finger independence, playing in major, minor and chromatic thirds, and in the case of the three Préludes and fugues, cultivating good voicing in the context of a contrapuntal texture. The evocatively titled Les Cloches de Las Palmas offers work on sonority and pedalling.

Saint-Saëns composed his Six Études pour la main gauche seule Op.135 in February 1912, while spending the winter in Egypt. He dedicated them to his friend Caroline de Serres (Montigny-Rémaury) whose right hand had been immobilised.

The set can be regarded as a Suite in the baroque sense: a Prélude followed by a set of dance movements (Bourrée, Élegie, Gigue). Written on two staves, it’s tempting to explore them using both hands, but as studies for left hand only they follow those of Brahms and Scriabin, anticipating the left hand repertoire championed by the next generation of composers. And they offer fascinating challenges!

The publication itself is a classy affair, with soft covers and printed on cream paper within. Sabina Teller Ratner‘s introduction is informative and detailed, appearing in French, English and German. There is a critical commentary at the rear.

The urtext scores are spaciously presented. Fiendishly difficult though these études undoubtedly are, the clarity of their engraving and delivery here makes them seem less intimidating. However, note that no editorial fingering has been added.

Œuvres pour piano II

The second volume in the same series is blessed with the same editorial and presentational strengths as the first. Here, though, the focus shifts to dance pieces, specifically waltzes and related pieces:

  • Valse, Op. 72, No. 4
  • Valse canariote, Op. 88
  • Valse mignonne, Op. 104
  • Valse nonchalante, Op. 110
  • Valse langoureuse, Op. 120
  • Valse gaie, Op. 139
  • Menuet et Valse, Op. 56
  • En forme de valse, Étude Op. 52/6
  • Danse macabre, Op. 40
  • Valse from the opera Étienne Marcel
  • Final from the opera Ascanio
  • Valse lente from the ballet Javotte.

Five of these works are Concert Waltzes, each characterised by its own descriptive adjective and dedicated to friends with whom the composer had spent his holidays.

But the waltz equally pervades many other pieces, including arrangements of Saint-Saëns’ other works. Among these we find the famous Danse macabre. This orchestral favourite has been transcribed for piano solo by more than one great musician: here’s it’s the version by the composer’s friend Théodore Ritter, first published in 1880.

Summing up this second volume, Éditions Durand tell us,

The Best of Saint-Saëns

The Danse macabre inevitably reappears in The Best of Saint-Saëns. Here, however, we are treated to the famous transcription by Franz Liszt, along with a dozen other Saint-Saëns favourites:

  • En forme de valse, Étude op. 52/6
  • Pour l’indépendance des doigts, Étude op. 52/2
  • Tierces majeures et mineures, Étude op. 111/1
  • Toccata (d’aprés le Final du Cinquième Concerto), Étude op. 111/6
  • Mazurka in B minor, op.66/3
  • Toccata, no.3 from Album pour piano, op.72
  • Le Rouet d’Omphale, poème symphonique, op. 31, transcription
  • Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila, transcription
  • Tango from Lola, scène dramatique, op. 116
  • Scherzo, extrait du Songe d’une nuit d’été de Mendelssohn, transcription by Saint-Saëns
  • Danse macabre, poème symphonique, op. 40, transcription by Franz Liszt
  • Prélude from Déluge, oratorio, op. 45, transcription by André Messager
  • Le Cygne from Carnaval des animaux, transcription by Emile Hoskier

This pot-pourri of popular favourites will for many be the starting point for exploring the music of this too-easily overlooked piano great.

The collection appears as part of a larger music treasury from Éditions Durand, other composers featured in the series including Satie, Poulenc, Ravel and Mompou.

The 134-page book, printed on white paper, has a rigid spine, but can be persuaded to stay open with only a little force! It is certainly built to last. The notation is again cleanly presented, drawn from previous Durand sources, but there is no supporting introduction or commentary.

Closing Thoughts

You may have noticed that there is one piece which actually appears in the listing of all three of these collections: the Étude op.52/6, ‘En forme de valse’.

What better way to conclude this article than to have a listen to this most popular of Saint-Saëns piano works? From her recent album When do we dance? here’s Lise de la Salle playing it:

The three books reviewed in this post, and several others from Éditions Durand, can be purchased from the Musicroom website here:

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.