Thursday 20 June 2019

The Frenchman more precocious than Mozart

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Camille Saint-Saëns
Camille Saint-Saëns

George Hamilton

It takes some talent to get yourself described as the most remarkable child prodigy in history. It wasn't Mozart the observer had in mind - it was Camille Saint-Saëns.

Writing in the New York Times in 1969, the paper's music critic, Harold C Schonberg, heaped praise on a composer he reckoned was misunderstood.

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Schonberg certainly had a point about the boy's precociousness.

Saint-Saëns composed his first music at the age of three (the manuscript is in the Paris Conservatory), and was giving recitals by the time he was five, all before he'd even had a lesson.

As an encore at his official debut, Schonberg notes that "he offered to play any of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas from memory". Saint-Saëns was 10 at the time.

He developed into a Renaissance man par excellence, with interests that extended across the sciences, through mathematics and astronomy, to the study of butterflies and moths.

No surprise, then, that his musical tastes were diverse.

First and foremost, he was a master at the keyboard. As church organist at the Madeleine in Paris for two decades, he had a strong following who came from far and wide to marvel at his improvisations.

His dexterity moved no less an expert than Franz Liszt to declare him the finest organist in the world.

Saint-Saëns was a prolific composer for almost seven decades, producing music, as he said himself, like an apple tree produces apples.

But the fruit in his musical basket extended way beyond Granny Smiths and Golden Delicious.

Yes, there's plenty for the piano, and there's his third symphony, scored for orchestra with organ. But there's so much more besides

He had a very productive partnership with the Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, who had approached Saint-Saëns as a teenager, asking him to write something for him to play.

The A major violin concerto was the first product of this collaboration. The wonderful 'Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso' - devised as a vehicle to showcase the Spaniard's dazzling technique - soon followed.

The ever-popular and endearing 14-movement suite, The Carnival of the Animals, may be the one that springs immediately to mind when you think of Saint-Saëns. Interestingly, it was never performed in his lifetime.

He produced music in all sorts of areas. Into his fifties, he was spending more time creating opera - Samson and Delilah had been an early success.

There would be one more piano concerto, 20 years after he'd completed his fourth.

This was for an anniversary concert in the summer of 1896, held in the Salle Pleyel in Paris to celebrate his career as a musician, which had begun on the very same stage half a century before.

Saint-Saëns didn't stop there. He continued to be intrigued by music's possibilities. He was behind one of the earliest film scores, which he later developed into a concert work - The Assassination of the Duke of Guise.

He also embarked on a project to expand the solo repertoire of the family of wind instruments that had had nothing like the prominence enjoyed by the strings.

With sonatas for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon already completed, it was still a work in progress when Saint-Saëns died in 1921, at the age of 86.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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