It is one of the enduring ironies of classical music that so much of today’s repertoire was written by such a small number of people. This post is the first in a multi-part Arts Fuse series dedicated to reevaluating neglected and overlooked orchestral music. As always, comments and suggestions are welcome at the bottom of the page or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
We begin our survey with one of my favorite musical discoveries of the last three years: Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony in E-flat, op. 2.
Saint-Saëns was one of the most prodigiously talented musicians of his or any other era. Born in 1835, he was a formidable pianist who, in his prime, could reportedly play all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas from memory and was highly regarded as an organist, as well. He possessed wide-ranging extra-musical interests (including in mathematics and astronomy) and, like Berlioz, was very well travelled. An almost ridiculously prolific composer, Saint-Saëns’ catalogue boasts over three hundred pieces in all the major genres and forms written over the course of eighty years. Not one of Romanticism’s most original voices, he was one of the period’s greatest craftsmen. Like Ravel, born a generation later, Saint-Saëns revered the art of composition as handed down from Bach, Haydn, and Mozart (especially the latter) and, while his youthful enthusiasm for German music turned to bile during the Great War, there remained, until his death in 1921, a Mozartian clarity to his writing.
This is most evident in the handful of Saint-Saëns’ pieces that remain in the canon: the Second and Fourth Piano Concertos; the wonderful B minor Violin Concerto and the Cello Concertos; the opera Samson and Delilah; the brilliant, witty Carnival of the Animals; and, of course, the celebrated “Organ” Symphony. It’s also true of the Symphony in E-flat.
Saint-Saëns actually wrote five symphonies, two of which (one in A and one in F major, the latter subtitled “Urbs Roma”) went unnumbered. The Symphony in E-flat, published in 1853 as his op. 2, was written between them, when its composer was at the ripe age of seventeen.
Like the work of many youthful composers, it’s to some degree derivative, though it wears its influences proudly. The spirit of Beethoven is never far removed, either in the Symphony’s motivic materials or its developmental procedures. There are dashes of Mendelssohnian brilliance, touches of Berlioz (especially in the orchestration which, in the finale, calls for four harps!), a helping or two of Wagner, bits of Schumann, and a little Gounod, as well.
And yet the cumulative effect sounds and feels like much more than a talented hodge-podge. Certainly Berlioz and Gounod thought so: they were overheard commenting on the score’s merits after its first public rehearsal, not realizing that the teenager sitting nearby them was its composer. It’s also worth noting that, between the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1824 and that of Brahms’s First in 1874, the genre of the symphony, in the hands of composers like Berlioz, Schumann, and Mendelssohn, was a very flexible thing. Saint-Saëns’ Symphony in E-flat reflects this fact with freshness and confidence. Therein lies a measure of its charm.
On the surface, the Symphony is a fairly conventional, four-movement affair. The first movement follows a traditional sonata form outline; the second (labeled “Marche-Scherzo”) is light and tuneful; the third presents a soaring, lyrical respite; and the finale wraps things up with martial pomp (and a nifty fugue to boot).
But its juxtaposition of contrasting materials and forms keeps it from ever feeling routine or too predictable. One can wax lyrical on Saint-Saëns’ gifts as a melodist but also point out a number of his pieces in which they fail to carry the day. That’s not the case here: this is a Symphony in which just about everything – musical argument, structure, counterpoint, orchestration – succeeds very strongly. Its spectacular coda may not bear the battle scars of Beethoven’s Fifth, but why should it? The purpose of this music is to charm and that’s precisely what it does. Let’s take a closer look to see why.
The first movement opens with, arguably, the Symphony’s most important motive, the interval of a falling fourth. Saint-Saëns presents it right at the start of a very short introduction (just eight bars long) and then elides straightaway into a brisker tempo, in which this interval is elaborated into a lovely, flowing melody. Throughout the entire opening movement, this figure and the rhythmic pattern it’s presented in tandem with – a doubly-dotted long note (either an eighth or a quarter) followed by a short one (usually a sixty-fourth or a sixteenth) and then a longer-held one (a full quarter or a half note) – appear almost obsessively. It’s a Beethovenian technique, for sure, but its appearance in this very different sounding musical context lends it a fresh quality, as do Saint-Saëns’ superior gifts as a melodist: by the time the second theme, bracketed by fanfares, rolls around, we’re clearly dealing with a composer who’s sure of himself, even as he readily acknowledges his most important predecessor in this genre.
Saint-Saëns’ lyrical abilities are nowhere showcased to finer effect in this Symphony than in the two middle movements. The second, called “Marche-Scherzo,” is perhaps the least aggressive march imaginable: its main theme is far more pastoral than militant. Eventually, some dotted rhythms do appear, as does a questing melody in the minor mode underneath a soft, jaunty string accompaniment. Still, the overarching aura of the movement is one of gentility and grace.
Following the sunny second movement comes some of the most pristine, delicate music Saint-Saëns ever wrote. Over a bed of tremolandi strings, a long, flowing melody rises from a solo clarinet. Eventually the first violins join in. Gradually, the movement’s first high point is reached. The sonorities Saint-Saëns drew from the orchestra here are striking and worthy of Berlioz at his most inventive: the melody is divided between flutes, English horn, and violins while a prominent place in the accompaniment is given to a solo harp. The affect is pure magic and so is the whole movement, moonlight music crafted with the sure hand of a seasoned, inventive pro – who, in this case, happened to not yet be twenty!
The finale that rounds out this most striking of first symphonies flows directly out of the slow movement: there’s no break between them, though the transition (like in Beethoven’s Fifth) feels a bit choppy. The first theme of the fourth movement recalls the opening gesture of the first, though here it’s got a bit more of a pugnacious swagger to it. In this opening section, Saint-Saëns again demonstrates his familiarity with Beethoven and Berlioz: his melodic materials are markedly triadic and his scoring (prominently showcasing wind instruments) most closely reflects the last movement of Berlioz’s spectacular Symphonie funebre et triomphale. Still, the melodic felicity could hardly come from any other hand, which becomes especially apparent as the march gives way to a series of sweeping, songful statements passed around the orchestra.
After those tunes run there course, a new section begins, this a big fugue in E-flat major. The subject itself is both triadic and scalar, not particularly interesting as a melody, but Saint-Saëns puts it through its paces with the utmost skill and a strong sense of how to build a compelling symphonic movement through contrasts of orchestral texture and melodic variety. Eventually, the march theme from the movement’s first section is interpolated into the fugue (much as Berlioz incorporated the Dies irae into the “Witches’ Round Dance” in the Symphonie fantastique, which was probably Saint-Saëns’ model for this movement), and the whole Symphony wraps up in a blaze of E-flat major splendor.
So where has this Symphony been hiding these past sixteen decades? Certainly Saint-Saëns’ posthumous reputation, which has tended to view his enormous output as uneven and too often shallow, hasn’t helped things. And there’s no denying the fact that the E-flat major Symphony is not one of the most original entries in the genre: it didn’t turn the symphony on its head, as did those of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler.
But the fact remains that it’s a brilliant piece, supremely crafted, wonderfully tuneful, and possessing an ending that’s rousing as they come. At the end of the day, it’s simply a fine piece of music: memorable, intelligent, and expressive. What better reasons does one need to play, hear, and otherwise get to know it?
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.