Camille Saint-Saëns: Piano Trio No.1 in F major, op.18

performed by Hayoung Bang, Violin; Sebastian Ortega, Cello; Serina Chang, Piano

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns was born on 9 October 1835 in Paris, child of an official in the French Ministry of the Interior, who died only a few months after his son was born. The young Camille was sent out to the country for health reasons, living outside of Paris for two years. Upon returning, living with his mother and also widowed aunt, he showed musical talent, picking out tunes on the piano and showing he had perfect pitch. His mother didn’t want to have a child prodigy on her hands, at least not too early,

I’ll admit it: Saint-Saëns was a composer who I was not initially inclined to like, and I had unconsciously made that decision having heard almost none of his music. Mid-19th century, squarely Romantic composer… y’know…

… and then I started listening to what this man wrote, and I’ll be darned if his music is not beyond spectacular. And I’m not talking just the carnival for some animals or a macabre dance, but like, everything I’ve listened to…

So I thought then that, being the first piece of his to appear on the blog, a chamber work isn’t much of a grand first appearance. And then I listened to this piano trio, and again I was proven wrong. It’s a piece of music that, like many truly genius pieces of music, can be enjoyed solely on its own merits, without any background or inspiration or program notes of any kind about what the composer intended. In my notes, before any research, I have words like ‘carefree’, ‘lyrical’, ‘rustic’, etc. And without any context, it’s a simple, straightforward, and yet still marvelously satisfying four-movement work.

So, some background then, very shortened, since I’m just sharing what I’ve read from other sources (to be shared) is that the middle of the 19th century was, in fact, not an era for chamber music, perhaps especially so in France, and yet here’s a young-ish French composer who makes a splash with something as out-of-style as a piano trio. He essentially defined what French music, and what chamber music, at least for the time, could or should be, and references are made to the (obvious) ‘rustic’ nature of the music online, French folk music, what the composer may have heard in his time in the countryside, who knows? In any case, it’s a piece just brimming with youthful, vibrant charms, but not superficial in any way: legitimate, satisfying expertly written music.

Edition Silvertrust has an elegant, succinct write-up about the piece, with a fantastic quote describing the work. Emile Baumann says it is “one of the most inspired moments of his youth.” And I think that’s the most outstanding quality of this work: youthfulness.

The first movement is made up two themes, each based on a pretty simple figure, the first more lively and bouncy, the second softer, and while it seems they show up constantly, the music is never repetitive. It’s like a hide-and-seek, a slow revealing and concealing as the music unfolds. There’s a charming economy of material, from which flows a logical but free first movement, with sumptuous, fragrant parts for each of the players, especially some dazzling piano passages. For a truly talented composer, of which Saint-Saëns is clearly one, it doesn’t take a ton of content to produce something extraordinary; the full potential of everything is put to good use. It’s a wonderful first movement.

The second movement is equally magical, but in a different way. It’s as if clouds have rolled in and suddenly darkened the sunny verdant landscape. It sounds quite ominous at first, as if we’re going to be presented with some kind of funeral march, but Robert Philip, in Hyperion liner notes, gives us some insight. He says:

Anyone who has encountered the folk music of France’s mountain regions will know just what Saint-Saëns had in mind: this is the sound of the hurdy-gurdy or vielle, complete with a characteristic tug of the rosined wheel at the end of each phrase.

Ah… so it’s not nearly as sinister as it sounds, but there’s still a delicate melancholy to this movement, a contrast to the first, but in keeping with its subtle, rustic charms. It’s absolutely magical, a mature, well crafted movement.

The scherzo that follows is short but lively, refined, sparkly, and full of delicate textures, a buoyant pizzicato from cello that sets the whole thing in motion, a short movement with a splash of charm.

The finale, as if we haven’t been bowled over by the piece’s charms and beauty, gives us yet another luxuriant movement of refined eloquence. (Is there such a thing as unrefined eloquence? Anyway…) This movement actually begins with an almost clumsy-sounding but straightforward gesture, but as Philip says, there’s more than meets the ear. “… Saint-Saëns is playing with our expectations. After a few bars, it becomes clear that the pattern in the piano is forming a melody, and the cello and violin are merely accompanying it.” More of this slight of hand.

It’s not really necessary to break the rest of the movement down. It’s a brilliant piece of music. It’s rare that a piece is both accessible at first or second listen and stands up to repeated listenings. If it’s instantly charming, there’s often something of a saccharine nature to the work, and if it’s deeply moving, with copious gems and detail, then it might be that it takes some significant time to warm up to, but it feels to me like we’re approaching something of Beethoven’s craft, a rare kind of genius, and so I must apologize. It’s taken this long to begin to discover and appreciate Saint-Saëns, but I’m glad we’re finally here, and as we shall see, there’s more connection to Beethoven coming up next week with more from Saint-Saëns, so stay tuned. See you soon.

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