Back in the LP days, if a singer wanted to show some sophistication, s/he sometimes put out an album of songs by famous composers set to the poems of one poet: for example, Phyllis Curtin’s much-admired 1964 disc of Debussy and Fauré songs to poems by Verlaine, with pianist Ryan Edwards (available now as a CD from VAI).
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.
One of the valuable things the Bard Music Festival teaches its audiences is just how arbitrary the classical canon is. While that can’t be said of Wagner or Elgar, we learned that Prokofiev and Sibelius are most visible in concert programs and recordings through works which are not necessarily their most personal or interesting, or perhaps even their best. As managers, virtuosi, and critics grind the classical sausage from a noble saucisson de Lyon into a hot dog, the nature of the classical loses its individuality and becomes uniform and bland. The fame of Camille Saint-Saëns, on the other hand, is linked to virtually no work at all — perhaps the Carnival of the Animals or the “Organ” Symphony, which is not really performed all that often today. This immaculate work acquired a bad reputation among critics, largely because it is extraordinarily loud in places — just the right places to produce wild applause from an audience — far too effectively for the tastes of the snobbish American critics of the late 1950s and 1960s, when it had two especially potent advocates, Charles Munch and Paul Paray. Curiously, Saint-Saëns has a bad reputation as an opera composer, although another one of his few works in the standard repertory, his Samson et Dalila, is an opera.
This year Bard Summerscape’s annual opera and operetta are fused into one in Emmanuel Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui, a true opéra comique, written for the homonymous theater in Paris. In this genre, with which Leon Botstein indulged New York audiences with Bizet’s Djamileh this past spring, the effervescent humor we associate with operetta meets the more careful writing and construction of opera. As delightful as Djamileh was—and it did offer something more substantial than the Strausses, Offenbach, and Gilbert and Sullivan—Le roi malgré lui is in a different league.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is, like his friend Franz Liszt, an exemplary subject for the Bard Summer Music Festival: his world was large, and he was vitally connected with it. He was recognized as an important composer—the most important French composer—through most of his maturity. He studied with important teachers. He had many friends, many enemies, and many students. His musical output was encyclopaedic. Uncharacteristically for a French composer, he wrote in virtually every form there was to write in. His compositions are in many cases linked to prominent contemporary issues in politics, the arts, and science. He prepared an historical edition of the works of Rameau and revived works by Lully and Charpentier.
San Francisco sustained two palpable if not destructive earthquakes (3.9 and 4.0) on Thursday October 20th, and the memory lingered with me for a performance of the Verdi Requiem on Friday the 21st with the San Francisco Symphony and for a matinee performance of Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila with the West Bay Opera on Sunday the 23rd in Palo Alto.