Happy Birthday, Saint-Saëns!

This October marks the 185th anniversary of the birth of Camille Saint-Saëns. This is not as big as next year's 100th anniversary of his death. As musicians all over the world celebrate his 185th birthday, many will post performances of his Swan from the Carnival of the Animals. Cellists will post Allegro appassionato and Cello Concerto No. 1. Other instrumentalists will listen to his Organ Symphony, Piano Concerto No. 2, Violin Concerto No. 3, Intro and Rondo capriccioso, and other hallmark works. But which piece mattered the most to Saint-Saëns himself? Which piece followed him from the very beginning of his musical career to its very end?

I would argue that Saint-Saëns's dearest musical offspring was his Romance in E major. This work began its life in 1862 as the fourth movement of Suite Op. 16 for cello and piano. Some scholars note this Suite as the first work to be recognizable as Saint-Saëns. In the Suite, the Romance follows the restless E-flat-major Scherzo. In contrast to the previous movement, the Romance is a serene and contemplative work; it begins with 2 E-major harmonies. The opening 2 measures are the seed for the entire movement. As you can see in the musical example to the left, the piano part almost begs to be orchestrated for a larger ensemble. Perhaps Saint-Saëns was already thinking about orchestral color at the time of its composition.

In 1866, Saint-Saëns orchestrated the Romance for horn and orchestra (3 flutes, 2 bassoons, and strings). He used the original version for cello and piano as the basis of the arrangement. The first cello melody was changed to an opening "tutti" of flutes and violins. There are but a few additional bars in the middle of the work that deviate from the original. There are also a couple of spots where Saint-Saëns simplifies the bass part, or adds a more interesting accompaniment. The version for horn and orchestra was never published during Saint-Saëns's lifetime. Here is a glimpse into his 1866 orchestration, which will be published with my revised critical edition of the Suite in the next few months:

Perhaps it was Saint-Saëns's encounter with hornist Henri Chaussier that his interest was renewed in the Romance. There is a correspondence that discusses the work in 1882. Whatever the circumstance, Saint-Saëns published a version of the Romance for horn and piano with Hamelle under Op. 67 in 1885, with an optional cello part to replace the horn if needed. This cello part was different than the original cello part from Op. 16. The horn and piano arrangement followed the horn and orchestra version almost exactly. The only differences were in the piano part being more similar to the Op. 16 in voicing and some figuration.

In my humble opinion, the version for horn and piano took a step back from the colorful orchestration of the 1866 version for horn and orchestra, but this version has become a mainstay for horn players. 

The story of the 1919 revision of the Suite is a complicated one and is best recounted by Saint-Saëns scholar Sabina Teller Ratner in this article: "Saint-Saëns' Last "Concerto"." Notes 48, no. 1 (1991): 20-25. But in short, cellist Joseph Hollman, the dedicatee of Saint-Saens's Cello Concerto No. 2, had been asking Saint-Saëns for a suite for cello and orchestra. Saint-Saëns decided to orchestrate his Suite, Op. 16. The Scherzo and Finale movements were giving him trouble, so he replaced them with a Gavotte and Tarantella, respectively. The original Romance movement was truncated by about 20 measures, which, at the slow tempo, is about 1:30 to 2:00 shorter. The entire Suite is scored for a chamber orchestra. Each movement has strings, but the Prelude and Romance has a pair of woodwinds, the Serenade, a flute and clarinet, the Gavotte a flute, oboe and pair of clarinets, and the Tarantella pair of woodwinds, horns, trumpets, and timpani.

So while you may celebrate Saint-Saëns's birthday with The Swan, Cello Concerto No. 1, or Organ Symphony, consider the piece that followed him for the duration of his career.


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