Many of us who attend the Bard Music Festival look forward to it with the same warm anticipation we once looked forward to Christmas. Two weekends are packed with music, much of it we’ve never heard before, some of it great, some good, some interesting. There are panel discussions and lectures to help tie it all together, usually pitched at a general educated audience, but always with surprises and things one didn’t know before. And there is a feast of discussion, with the musicians, with the speakers, and with each other. It’s not so much that there is music to be enjoyed and a historical context to learn: through the immersion in immediate, live concerts and contact with knowledgeable humans a unique experience emerges in which we can live this whole of sensual and intellectual pleasure, analysis, and a direct understand of the cultural and social whole in which the music was created. The difference between this and the traditional sources of background information available to concertgoers—i.e. program notes—is like a month in Paris against a travel brochure.
My leading thought goes against much of what the Bard Music Festival and my own values, for that matter, stand for. And just read Keith Francis’ provocative series, The Great Composers?, the latest installment of which has just been published. I’ve missed only one Bard Festival since 2006, and I’ve heard great music by Elgar, Prokofiev, and Sibelius. And, well, Saint-Saëns was too gifted to be great, and that really didn’t interest him in any case. Of the composers included in the festival, only Wagner and Stravinsky turn up on common lists of the greatest—not that those stupid lists do anything but harm. Still, during the two weekends devoted to Franz Schubert I felt I was living with the gods, and the lingering impression of those weekends swelled accordingly.
At first, Saint-Saëns was ahead of his time. Then, following his decade at the apex of French music, he was old-fashioned. We remember him today as if he were a composer of ‘light’ music, suitable for Pops concerts and to be excerpted. His most well-known work was a private joke that he hesitated to publish. And yet, as demonstrated by the Bard Festival, he was considerably more than that, a figure through whose music and career a new light is cast on the art and culture of the second half of the nineteenth century.