Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Saint-Saëns' Final Word: A Bassoon Sonata at 85

This week’s dose of great music features a charming Sonata for Bassoon and Piano, a last composition created by then 85-year old Camille Saint-Saens in 1921. In this performance, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, winner of the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Career Grant, is joined by MSC Director, pianist Ya-Ting Chang.” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director, Market Square Concerts.

This program was part of the Summermusic series, recorded at Market Square Church on July 19th, 2013.

(again, due to space limitations on the blog format, if you want to view the performance at “full screen,” click on the box-like image in the lower right corner when you hover the cursor over the video.) - All videos from Market Square Church are filmed by their audio technician, Newman Stare.
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The sonata opens with a gentle but brief Allegro moderato, continues with a sprightly Allegro scherzando (at 3:10), followed by a Molto adagio (at 7:16) blending into another gentle Allegro moderato with a lively but brief finale (at 12:22) to conclude. As is often typical of creative artists in old age, this music is a distillation of those classical influences, especially his beloved Mozart, rather than the "excesses" (as he called them) of his earlier maturity, more familiar works from the age of late-19th Century Romanticism. One commentator described the sonata as "a model of transparency, vitality and lightness" containing humorous touches but also moments of peaceful contemplation.

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Camille Saint-Saëns, famous for his popular Carnival of the Animals and the “Organ” Symphony, offers us a little-heard Bassoon Sonata that was the last piece he composed when he was 85. Hearing this work for the first time only a few years ago, I was reminded how one of those concert companion books I grew up with as a child included Saint-Saëns in a chapter called “French Composers of the Charm School.”

Saint-Saëns, prodigy
Unlike many composers, especially those who exemplify the rule of the "suffering artist," Camille Saint-Saëns had it easy: a prodigy who began composing at the age of 3 (?!), he could play all of Beethoven's piano sonatas from memory when he was 10. Hector Berlioz heard a symphony Saint-Saëns composed when he was 17, and wrote, “He knows everything but lacks inexperience.”

In 1886, he produced his two best-known works, the witty (and mostly irreverent) Carnival of the Animals and the grandest of French symphonies, his Third, the famous “Organ” Symphony which he dedicated to the memory of his friend, Franz Liszt, who had just died.

The Bassoon Sonata is one of three wind sonatas composed in his final year. It is amazing to hear it, once you realize it was written in 1921 and recall how, at the first concert performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring a year after its premiere, he famously stalked out of the hall shortly after the music began, complaining about the composer's misuse of the bassoon in its famous opening solo.

When Saint-Saëns was young, he was considered a progressive, championing the more radical styles of Liszt and Berlioz. Born eight years after Beethoven's death, his early career ran parallel with the mature Chopin and Mendelssohn. He was considered “the most German of all French composers” mostly because he often wrote with a sense of counterpoint – writing independent lines that worked melodically as well as harmonically rather than in the standard melody-plus-accompaniment approach – which was considered an academic German technique. When they called him “The French Beethoven,” it was not always meant as a compliment.

En route to California, 1915
By the end of his career, he was regarded as uselessly old-fashioned, especially by Debussy and Ravel. Even though he may have been the earliest-born pianist to make a recording of his playing and the first major composer to write for the film (in 1908), he fought against the influences of new music either by Debussy or Richard Strauss. He (like many of his contemporaries) considered Stravinsky “mad.” Hearing the polytonal music of Darius Milhaud, he said “fortunately, there are still lunatic asylums in France.”

We often hear about people reaching their old age turning to the past. But if you check with those who remain vitally involved with the present and thinking about their future, what keeps them going is keeping busy, getting involved in some project or other, perhaps volunteering to keep active or doing something they've always enjoyed, that gives them a sense of purpose. Certainly, a composer as successful and productive as Saint-Saëns could have ridden out retirement on a vast collection of well-deserved laurels.

But instead, at 85, Saint-Saëns was planning a series of sonatas for wind instruments. He'd already completed one for oboe and another one for clarinet when, in May, 1921, he began this one for bassoon. Finishing it in June, he'd planned on writing three more, though we don't know exactly what they might've become.

Throughout his life, he was also a fine pianist. He'd already given his "farewell concert" in 1913, but World War I brought him back to perform numerous concerts to raise money for various war-related charities and to help build morale in those very dark times. On November 5th, 1921, less than a month after turning 86, Saint-Saëns gave a recital at Paris' famed Institute for a large invited audience. According to a French musicologist writing a tribute to him in 1922, his playing was as vivid and precise as ever, and that his personal bearing gave no hint of the heart attack that would suddenly end his life a little over a month later.

Saint-Saëns at his best is usually regarded today as a composer of great facility while the music of his last decade is generally overlooked if not dismissed. That, however, is only in the context of what was being written around him. If an old dog cannot be expected to learn new tricks, why should we begrudge a composer in his 80s for waxing nostalgic over the Good Old Days?

Rossini and Sibelius are two famous composers who chose to stop writing at the peak of their careers because the latest trends were becoming so foreign to them, spending their final decades in silence. We often wonder “what if...?”

Saint-Saëns at least kept on going, right to the very end.

- Dick Strawser

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