Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Saint-Saëns - Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso

Camille Saint-Saëns was a natural musician, one of those who was born to make and create music. As he said himself, "I produce music the way an apple tree produces apples."  He was a child prodigy, memorized all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas and offered the audience to choose one that he would play from memory as an encore at his debut recital in 1845 when he was ten years old.  Such a feat made him world famous, even in the United States.  He composed his first piano piece at 4 years of age, his first public appearance was as an accompanist for a Beethoven violin sonata when he was 5 years old. He wrote his first symphony at sixteen. But his genius was not limited to music. He knew how to read and write by three years old and had a partial command of Latin by the time he was seven.  His many interests throughout his life included geology, archaeology, botany, and the occult. He was an expert mathematician, wrote on a variety of subjects, and wrote a book of poetry.

Raw genius is perhaps not as rare as we think, but raw genius combined with a capacity to work and train that genius to its full potential perhaps is. Saint-Saëns seems to have had both. That he was a quick study is evident, but he developed his gifts to a remarkable degree through effort and diligence. That he was able to do this with what appeared to the ordinary person with not much effort probably caused him to have as many enemies as friends. Jealousy over someone else's precocity isn't that rare of a thing.  Perhaps that is one issue that has fueled some criticisms of his music over the years, that it is too 'slick', shallow, no depth of feeling, cold.  To be sure,  his music does not plumb the depths like a Bruckner symphony, but why would it? Saint-Saëns is not Bruckner, or Beethoven, or anyone else. His music is well written, has its moments of feeling and passion that is more refined, and even subdued. But a point can be made with understatement as well as (and sometimes better) than overstatement.  It pretty much boils down to what the listener likes and 'gets' out of the music.

Saint-Saëns wrote the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Violin and Orchestra  for the virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate in 1863.  The work is fitting for a virtuoso, and Saint-Saëns shows that he was not only a master of orchestration (the craft of using instruments in varying combinations) but also of instrumentation ( the craft of using a particular instruments tone, pitch and dynamic range, technical possibilities, correct notation for the instrument). In this piece as well as his others for violin and orchestra, as well as the first Cello Concerto he shows his complete command and knowledge of what is possible on strings. For someone who did not play the violin, his artistic and practical knowledge of the instrument was amazing.

The rhythm and thematic material of the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso  shows that Saint-Saëns shared with his fellow french composers a fascination with Spanish music. The work is a lyrical showpiece for the violin, with some pyrotechnics thrown in for good measure, especially near the end when the violin plays the accompaniment to the theme heard in the oboe.  For Saint-Saëns,  virtuosity could be a virtue as much as the music, but it must always contribute to the musical whole.

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