Saint-Saëns Symphony in A major

performed by the Orchestre National De L’O.R.T.F. under Jean Martinon

Not the typical symphony choice is it? In fact, searches for other symphonies (on library bookshelves, the iTunes store, Amazon, etc.) are so riddled with recordings of the composer’s third symphony that it’s quite difficult to find just about any of the other four. Yup! There are five in total, this being the earliest.

It’s early enough, in fact, that it came a few years before the composer’s actual op. 1 and therefore was not assigned an opus number. In his entire Wikipedia article, the work gets only two mentions, first that it was a student composition from 1850 (and if you remember the composer’s 1835 birth year, you’ll calculate he was a mere 15 years old!), and secondly that a 2001 edition of Grove’s Dictionary considers this symphony to be “the most ambitious of the composer’s juvenilia.” I seem to remember having read somewhere that this work premiered only long after the composer’s death, but I can’t find now…

But that’s pretty much it. As discussed in last week’s chamber article on the composer’s op. 18, the musical world was obsessed with opera, but there was something else particular to the symphonic repertoire that had caused a bit of a problem for a time, and that was the enormous shadow cast over the symphony by the still-looming figure of Beethoven’s choral ninth, premiered more than two decades before this work, but still apparently keeping most composers from writing real symphonies. Liszt turned to the symphonic poem, eventually writing more than a dozen of them; Wagner wrote a young one but turned to opera. There were only really a few composers still around with the guts to write symphonies. Mendelssohn wrote a few, all four (or five) of them (Lobgesang isn’t really a symphony, is it?) before the age of the young Saint-Saëns hit double digits. Interestingly, though, Mendelssohn wrote his first symphony (and published and numbered it so) at 15 as well, so that’s an obvious comparison for a number of reasons.

Him aside, there was Schumann, whose third symphony reached the world the same year as this work, as well as a few Swedes, Onslow, etc., but my point is Saint-Saëns’ decision to approach the symphonic form is an interesting, and rare, one, but he did it quite well.

Aside from the Mendelssohn association, there’s a likeness to Beethoven in this early work. It sounds fresh and youthful, full of potential, if not just slightly on the tame side. That’s not to say it’s boring; it’s a delightful listen, but it impresses me in its subtle pleasantness rather than any overwhelming sense of genius or innovation. It’s surprising this work isn’t performed (or recorded) more, not because it’s so outstanding, but because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, if that makes sense.

The first movement strikes me as a pretty typical symphonic first movement, but one I’m inclined to love. We have a slow Beethoven-like, meandering introduction before the exposition proper begins; I’m a sucker for that kind of build up, where you know things have begun in earnest when the first theme of the exposition appears, and when they do, there’s something Mozartian about it, something subtly but perfectly lyrical and crisply rhythmic, and we’re off. Again, there’s nothing earth-shatteringly new here, a first subject, a second subject, recapitulation, and a slightly interesting ending, with a quiet flutter from flute, a big A major bang, followed by an abrupt silence.

And it’s the slow movement. This might be perceived as the weakness of the symphony, where the attraction of the first movement rather overpromises and underdelivers. It’s the longest movement of the symphony, but I find it quite compelling, and it doesn’t seem overly lengthy. We’re talking only nine minutes here, not like what was to come later from Bruckner or Mahler. In fact, the movement presents peaks and valleys like a miniature slow movement from Bruckner. It successfully builds tension, resolves it well, gives a glimpse of epic breadth contrasted with calls and chirps from the winds in a central passage. I am pleased.

The scherzo for our third movement is subtle, nothing too exciting or driving or cacophonous, but again, well written and tasteful. It’s very short, and quite safe, really, maybe the greatest missed opportunity of the work. It feels like we’re constantly on the verge of a real explosion of energy and excitement, but it always stays quite tame, with some relative highs and lows, but not what I’d hope it would result in. But still nice.

The finale sounds Mozartean to me, which might seem a bit exaggerated to say regarding a fifteen-year-old on an unpublished symphony, but I will temper that comment by saying it does lack some of the spark of the grand master. It’s a bit like taking an image of a beautiful sunset as it disappears behind the trees, a real Hallmark moment. If Mozart’s finished product were an image taken with expensive equipment, a high end camera in incredibly high resolution, with all the spectrum of colors and all the rest, and while the lesser of the two cameras catches the same photo, and communicates the same thing, it’s not of the same intensity. To say it’s not of the genius of a late Mozart symphony is certainly not a criticism; for a fifteen year old composer, it’s quite an achievement. The finale, like the scherzo, seems to be just seconds away from something truly magnificent, but there’s perhaps a bit too much restraint, or else lack of experience in going all-out, but the final bars of the work make for an exciting finish.

Maybe I’m being more positive about the work than many others would be, but at the very least, even if you’re not going to listen to it with any regularity or aren’t dying to hear it in the concert hall, it’s a compelling argument, if one still needs to be made, that the (quite) young Saint-Saëns was already brimming with talent, and I guess that’s kind of the point: it’s been more than three years that I’ve been writing this blog, and look what I’ve been missing! In any case, stay tuned for what you now know is one of Saint-Saëns’ cello concertos, the real, undisputed gem of what we’ll be discussing this week.

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