Classical Chat: Drama and fun in Saint-Saëns' music

Camille Saint-Saens
Camille Saint-Saens

For someone obsessed with his standing as a serious composer, it’s the sheer enjoyment of Saint-Saëns’ music which stands out.

Astonishingly talented from a very early age, the Frenchman wrote music which sparkles with throwaway brilliance and is often harder on the performers than you might expect.

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He also penned some of the most exciting moments in the orchestral and concerto repertoire from the whole of the 19th century.

Another of his gifts was the pictorial nature of his music, conjuring up specific scenes and images through unusual use of instruments and clever melodies.

Saint-Saëns may sometimes struggle with coherent structures in long pieces, and he also wrote a lot of music very quickly without revision time, but there’s still so much to savour in his output.

Here are a few of the shining stars from his works:

Symphony No. 3 (Organ): Quite simply this is the most entertaining French symphony of the 1800s, with a wealth of memorable melodies leading up to the moment when the organ is cranked up to 11.

Piano Concerto No.2: This has an inspired beginning with a sumptuous piano solo leading into the orchestra’s entry and a dramatic thrill ride. The rest of the work fails to live up to the intro (the slow movement in particular is pleasant but lacks drama), but the first movement is incredibly special.

Cello Concerto No.1: Another of Saint-Saëns’ brilliant beginnings with passionate exchanges between soloist and orchestra. In a good performance this catches fire.

Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso: A miniature showpiece for violin and orchestra, with a free-flowing introduction leading to a very famous tripping melody full of spark.

Bacchanale: The dance interlude from his opera Samson and Delilah brilliantly uses woodwind to evoke the Middle Eastern temple setting before cranking up the tension for a sensational and gripping climax.