Camille Saint Saëns - Piano Concerto No. 2 G minor
Born in Paris, French composer Camille Saint-Saens‛s (1835-1921) father died soon after, so he was raised by his mother and her aunt, who gave the boy piano lessons. He wrote his first piece at age four, accompanied a Beethoven violin sonata at five, and at seven, studied composition with Pierre Maleden and piano with Camille-Marie Stamaty. At ten, he played a recital in Paris from memory, including Beethoven and Mozart concertos. For an encore, he offered to play any Beethoven sonata from memory. Enrolling at the Paris Conservatory at thirteen, he studied organ under Francois Benoist and composition with Fromental Halevy. His Symphony in A appeared in 1850, the first of three numbered symphonies in 1853, the Piano Quintet and Symphony Urbs Roma (both 1856), Piano Concerto No. 1 (1858), and Symphony No. 2 (1859).
From 1861 to 1865, Saint-Saens was a professor of piano at the Ecole Niedermeyer where one of his students, Gabriel Faure, became his best friend. He also served as organist in several churches, including La Madeleine (1857 to 1877) where Liszt heard him and pronounced him the greatest organist in the world. He enjoyed enough success as a performer and composer for Napoleon III to keep him out of the Franco-Prussian War, though the Paris Commune drove him to London for a few months. In many ways, Saint-Saens was a “Renaissance man,” in that he was versed in and wrote widely on the natural sciences, mathematics, archeology, geology, literature, philosophy, and history. He was also a poet and a playwright. Like many prominent French composers, he failed to win the Prix de Rome.
The young Saint-Saens was an adventurous advocate of the music of Schumann and Berlioz whose line about Saint-Saens is classic: “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience.” Indeed, he introduced the music of Liszt, Bach, Mozart, and Handel to the French public and promoted new music by French composers through the Societe Nationale de Musique. He defended Wagner against critics, and his playing of that composer’s scores on the piano prompted Hans von Bulow to call him “the greatest musical mind” of his era.
The composer married at age forty. Both his children died, one after a fall from a building. He blamed that on his wife’s negligence, walked out, never saw her again, and became somewhat of a loner, save for attaching himself to Faure’s family. His mother’s death set him to traveling through Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. Along the way, he turned conservative in his musical tastes, criticizing Wagner, Debussy, and other young composers to the point where Vincent d’Indy had him expelled from the Societe.
Saint-Saens’s music displays clean textures and classical structures, earning him the nickname, “French Mendelssohn” (though Gounod referred to him as the “French Beethoven”). His huge output includes symphonies, operas, orchestral and incidental pieces, works for organ, piano, and voice, plus, though an atheist, masses and sacred works. His major pieces appeared toward the late middle of his career: Symphony No. 3 (Organ Symphony), Carnival of the Animals (both 1886), Danse Macabre (1872), Samson and Dalilah (1877), and several tone poems.
A fine pianist, the composer was the soloist for the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in G-minor (1868) conducted by Anton Rubinstein. It was his first major work, though its reception was indifferent. “From Bach to Offenbach,” was how composer Zygmunt Stojowski described it, probably because of the stylistic evolution the work goes through (though some scholars believe Stojowski was referring to the third movement). The composer blamed lack of practice for the negative reception and went on to write three more piano concertos (probably composing No. 3 after Liszt’s encouragement).
All movements of the Second are in sonata form. Andante Sostenuto opens with a piano cadenza in the style of a Bach fantasia. The florid first theme in the piano over a barcarolle rhythm was based on an idea of Faure’s. The second theme sounds in the piano over syncopation, and the complex development leads to two cadenzas, one reprising the opening, plus a return of the main themes. The music becomes contemplative before a stern Beethoven-like ending.
The themes of the Allegro Scherzando are a perky Mendelssohnian idea and a lyrical tune that anticipates “Elephant” from Carnival of the Animals.
Presto begins as a tarantella. The second theme is in delineated octaves in the piano, and the development is a circus of piano virtuosity, including big piano chords near the end that anticipate Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral.
Franz Schubert - Symphony No.9 in C Major "The Great"
Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828) personified the transition from the Classical to the Romantic era. Like Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms, he lived in Vienna, but only Schubert was born there, one of five surviving siblings. The boy‛s music education began early. His father ran a music school and gave him lessons on violin, brother Ignace taught him piano, and their church organist schooled him on organ and music theory. At age eleven, Franz began his formal education in a boarding school. Five years later he returned home and studied music with Antonio Salieri, who later sent him to Wenzel Ruzicka, the Imperial Court organist, only for Ruzicka to send him back with the admonition that, “He knows everything already. God Almighty has taught him.”
Franz Schubert died at age 31 but in that short time he composed over 1500 works, including many “firsts” during his teens: his first string quartet at fourteen, symphony at sixteen, mass at seventeen, opera at nineteen, and piano sonata at twenty. His first break came when a friend introduced him to baritone Johann Michael Vogl, who sang the composer‛s songs all over Vienna to appreciative audiences. When the rejection of his application for Kapellmeister in Laibach (now Ljubljana) left his finances in peril, help from friends enabled him to attend a school for teachers. After graduation, he taught at his father’s school until 1818 when he took a teaching job with the Esterházy family in Zseliz (now in Slovakia) and wrote many songs and piano works.
In 1822 he was hospitalized with cyclothymia, but he continued to compose, producing Symphony No. 8, Mass No. 5, and Wanderer Fantasy (all 1822), plus the opera Alfonso und Estrella and the operetta Die Verschworenen (both 1823). In 1825, in need of funds, he applied for the deputy music director position at Vienna‛s Imperial Chapel but was turned down. Devastated and nearly broke–composing was his only income–he wrote to a friend (probably painter Leopold Kupelwieser) that he was the “most unfortunate, miserable being in the world.” Even so, he produced a string quartet and piano sonata (both in G-major, 1826 ), Winterreise (1827), and in 1828, the year of his death, Mass No. 6, the String Quintet in C-major, and Schwanengesang (Swan Song).
Symphony No. 9 “Great C-major,” D. 9441 was also written in 1828.2 (“Great” fits its quality and structure, though Schubert chose the term to differentiate it from his Symphony No. 6 “Little C-major.”) The composer never heard a performance of his Ninth Symphony, mainly because the Philharmonic Society of Vienna and orchestras in London and Paris found it too long and difficult. It was only after the composer‛s brother Ferdinand gave the score to Robert Schumann who passed it on to Felix Mendelssohn that the work was finally and successfully performed (somewhat cut) with Mendelssohn conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. The year was 1839, eleven years after its composer‛s death.
The symphony‛s long slow introduction presents a noble theme in the horns that is picked up by the orchestra and later becomes the secondary theme in the Allegro. The primary component of that Allegro is a light, dancing, and spirited melody introduced by the oboe that interacts with the opening theme. Schubert‛s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies were the first major orchestral works to use the trombones as melody instruments, and they are prominent in that role here and for the rest of the work. Much of this movement is driven by dotted rhythms, often interrupted by weighty chords and a treatment of the opening theme. Its structure is complex, but the melodist in Schubert keeps things clear, contrasting light-heartedness, nobility, and rusticity before a triumphant ending.
The Andante contrasts a lilting wind idea with a light-hearted, almost strutting march introduced in the low strings. A trio-like passage introduces an uplifting lyrical tune that gives way to one more flowing and somber. Schubert presents some innovative ideas in this movement, often contrasting light-heartedness with dark overtones. At one point, what sounds almost like an armed force builds to a dissonance that is shocking for this era. As if stunned, a long somber string melody follows and tentatively retreats to the lighter material, ending with soft mournful harmonies (also unusual for the era).
The ABA-structured Scherzo opens with a bustling waltz-like passage (A). The B tune gracefully slides along propelled by dotted rhythm accompaniment.
The Finale opens with a dotted-note fanfare that leads to a lively passage followed by a four-note motto accompanied by quick, brushlike figures in the strings. The first heavy section emerges as rising chords in the trombones. After a breezy woodwind dialogue, the trombones intone the main theme that runs through the orchestra and culminates with the opening fanfare figure. Much of this material returns and drives powerfully to a passage that suggests a peaceful ending. Instead, busy strings quietly sound the four-note motto leading to a triumphant finish.
1The complicated numbering of Schubert‛s nine symphonies was established in Schubert: Thematic Catalogue of all his Works in Chronological Order, 1951 by Otto Erich Deutsch (hence the D-numbers assigned to each piece). The Catalogue was revised in 1978. The numbering of the first six is standard. Sketches of Nos. 7 and 10 were “completed” by composers other than Schubert. The two complete movements of No. 8 (Unfinished) make up Schubert‛s most popular symphony. No. 9, also complete, is sometimes referred to as 7 or 8, particularly in German sources.
2For many years it was thought to have been written in 1825.