It is one of the strange
facts of musical life that one of the
most popular composers is actually known
for comparatively few works. A brief
study of the Arkiv Music website reveals
some interesting facts. First of all
there are some 945 recordings of works
by our composer. Great! But break this
down a little further and we see the
problem. Over a hundred of these are
devoted to the beautiful but perhaps
all too well known aria from Samson
et Dalila, ‘Mon coeur s'ouvre à
ta voix.’ There are nearly two hundred
renditions of The Swan in the
catalogue along with fifty versions
of the Carnival of the Animals.
Organ enthusiasts are blessed with forty-four
recordings of the Organ Symphony.
As for the rest of the composer’s vast
opus list it is a case of pot luck.
There are a few recordings of the Piano
Trios and a selection of the sonatas.
As for the First Symphony there
is one version and for the Second
there is two!
Now I am not going
to put a value on the above statistics.
Suffice to say that of all the music
of Saint-Saëns, it is the Piano
Trios that have always impressed
When we turn to the
organ music we are in almost uncharted
territory. I have heard a few works
given at recitals over the last third
of a century and have even played one
or two myself. However, unlike the works
of Franck, Widor or Guilmant they do
not seem to hold their place in the
repertoire. And that, as you can all
guess I am about to reflect, is a pity.
However the present disc does much to
present these forgotten works in an
exciting and interesting light.
first published organ work is also his
most performed. The Fantasie in Eb
was first heard in 1857 at the Church
of Saint-Merry in Paris. This is a deservedly
popular work – in fact it seems almost
to transcend time. It does not appear
to be ‘stuck’ in any particular style
of its day; if anything it looks forward
to the works of Vierne and Widor. It
is perhaps unusual for its time in that
the opening filigree passage is written
for alternate chords played on two manuals.
The second section of the Fantasie
is a great march that would make an
attractive alternative to certain more
popular choices at weddings.
Little need be said
about the transcription by Emile Bernard
of the gorgeous Adagio from the
Organ Symphony. The difficulty
in such a piece as this is combining
the orchestral parts with the solo instrument.
However, Bernard has taken this music
in hand and has produced a seamless
work that stands as a recital piece
in its own right. It is fair to add
that Saint-Saëns himself was well
known for re-arranging many of his works
for a variety of instrumental resources.
The CD opens with what
is perhaps one of the composer’s greatest
organ works – the Prélude
et Fugue in Eb major. This was one
of a set of three works in this form
written in the summer of 1894 – each
dedicated to a contemporary organist.
The third was presented to Eugene Gigout.
The opening prelude is written in the
‘broken chord supported by slow pedal
bass’ style that was to become extremely
popular in French organ music in the
late nineteenth and early twentieth
century, culminating in the great Toccatas
of Vierne and Widor. The music is self-propelling
and eventually comes to a close in two
powerful chords. The fugue owes something
to Mendelssohn. It is written in ‘waltz’
time; however it achieves a wonderful
balance between an academic fugue and
a genuine work of art. And that is a
great compliment to anyone who has ever
tried to write a fugue!
The excellent programme
notes tells us how the composer went
on holiday to Brittany with a number
of friends. Amongst these friends was
his erstwhile pupil, Gabriel Fauré.
During the trip Saint-Saëns did
more than sight-see. He wrote the Three
Rhapsodies on Breton Mélodies
Op.7 and subsequently dedicated them
to his pupil. The third ‘mélodie’
given here is in arch-form beginning
quietly and slowly but steadily building
to a great climax before subsiding to
a thoughtful close.
Perhaps the most impressive
and certainly the most innovative work
on this CD is the Seven Improvisations
Op.150. Apparently they were written
in the sickbed whilst the composer was
suffering from bronchitis. They are
late works, written only a few years
before his death. One of the interesting
things about these pieces is the subtle
use of Gregorian chant. These Improvisations
need to be worked at a little – they
are not immediately approachable. However
they do give the lie to the view that
Saint-Saëns was somehow stuck in
a stylistic rut. There is engagement
here with the contemporary trends in
All of these works
owe much to the classical and romantic
background to the composer’s career.
He was born when Mendelssohn was 26
years old and Chopin had reached his
25th birthday. He died at
a time of great change in musical taste
in 1921. So his career spans a huge
range of musical history. The works
on this CD span this era and reflect
the composer’s response to the musical
events of the day. However it is important
to realise that in some of these pieces
he leads the way. Perhaps the early
Fantasie foreshadows much that
was to follow in the succeeding half
Of course the sound
on this CD is excellent, the playing
by Robert Delcamp is totally sympathetic
and the organ of Saint-Martin, Dudelange
is impressive to say the least.
This is a fine introduction
to the organ music of one of France’s