Monthly Archives: August 2007

August 30, 2007

Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 in C minor (“Organ”), Op. 78 (1886)

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1912)

Opus 78: Symphony no. 3, in C minor (“Organ”)

composed: 1886 (age 51)
published: 1886
first performance: London, May 19, 1886 (Saint-Saëns conducting the London Philharmonic Society)
dedicated to the memory of Franz Liszt

Score can be studied, but not easily downloaded, here.

343 on the list.

Because of Babe (and, by extension, these dudes), I used to think of this as a piece with a sweet spot, a single sparkling moment at the top of the last movement, surrounded by satisfactory but unmemorable conventionality. I managed to think of it that way even after recognizing that the “sweet spot” is just one incarnation, neither the first nor the last, of a flexible motive that undergoes development throughout the entire symphony. The entirety of the piece preceding the sweet spot played as an elaborate anticipation of the sweet spot; the remainder as an obviously failed attempt to sustain its glory.

Now that I’ve heard the whole piece some twenty or thirty times, the sweet spot dims and takes its proper place in the form. It’s certainly not an unsweet spot, but it’s not the point of the piece either. Babe and I were partially right all along: yes, that moment is sort of a prophecy fulfilled, and yes, it’s sort of an announcement of victory. But the “prophecy” feeling is really only meant to function retroactively; the other movements really do stand on their own and don’t have any particularly anticipatory feeling to them. And the even more bombastic stuff at the very end is meant to trump the sweet spot. Which is very clear indeed when you’re listening to it straight through without any prior knowledge of “If I Had Words.”

Saint-Saëns’ reputation is for facility, in both the positive and negative sense. (Or can you only use “facile” in the negative sense, not “facility?” Well then, Saint-Saëns’ reputation is for being very talented but writing facile music.) But I’m not sure that reputation is borne out by this piece, which certainly feels craftsmanly in many ways but is hardly a slick, seamless piece of work. Throughout, he can be heard taking unusual risks, not all of which pay off. His struggles to achieve formal and aesthetic balance are fairly apparent; the piece does not “make it look easy.”

This sounds like a criticism but I mean it as a defense against the accusation that the music is superficial and glossy. I enjoy that the piece is actually a string of idiosyncracies, some of them awkward; it helps give value and definition to the passages that are both slick and conventional, and imbues the whole with a sense of human ambition that I find sympathetic, if not always necessarily successful.

He has some kind of big idea about how the four movement scheme has been subsumed into a two-movement scheme because the 1st and 3rd movements lead semi-smoothly into the 2nd and 4th movements; but the actual effect is fairly local and negligible, if you ask me. Maybe by having had no actual “big finishes” prior to the 4th movement, he thinks he’s justified a final mega-parade of big finishes. I’m not so sure.

The theme of the first movement seems like some kind of reference to Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, not clear why. The syncopated effect in the strings starting on page 5, it would seem, is near impossible to play with exact precision. Or else conductors just don’t prioritize it – I don’t think any of the recordings I heard were able to keep that texture truly crisp. I can imagine that the rehearsal-time-to-impact ratio is much too high in almost every situation; I would therefore class this as poor judgment on the composer’s part. The second theme is weakish in the way that everything I’ve ever heard by Franck seems weakish; and the development, based mostly on transitional figures, verges on the dull. Then it suddenly lurches out boldly in a way that maybe it hasn’t earned. All that said, I have driven this piece deep into my brain and will cheerfully listen to the entire movement, humming the whole way through. It doesn’t really make a solid argument for or about anything but just listen to how vigorous those strings are! “If that ain’t a symphony I don’t know what is!”

The theme of the slow second movement (first movement part 2, in Saint-Saëns’ scheme), is both beautiful and “beautiful.” This is not the only respect in which it is comparable to Saint-Saëns’ mega-hit, “The Swan.” Of the two I think the present melody is superior. Actually, it sort of sounds like an inversion of “The Swan.” Has anyone else pointed this out?

The nicknamular organ enters in this movement for a unique atmosphere. An organ generally suggests worship and cathedrals and all that, but I don’t actually get that here. To me this is more like an intense lullaby, something so warm and soothing that it’s unearthly. The organ puts us not in a church but underwater, or in utero. The melody, in this context, is like the kind of too-simple tune that lingers from my dreams sometimes when I’m waking up – it seems more laden with emotion than something this bare has any right to be. I get this sense of “the uncanny within the mild and hummable” from Puccini, too, whose melodies this resembles. His supposedly “beautiful” tunes have an unnerving not-actually-casual quality; like someone has lifted up the skin of a salon song and we are looking at its concave face from the inside. Whew, how horrific.

I’m talking especially about the part of the melody at rehearsal “R” in the score. I wouldn’t be shocked if Saint-Saëns just meant this to be baby Jesus in the manger or something like that, but to me there’s something dizzying and dreamy about it. Although I suppose for a lot of people there’s something dizzying and dreamy about baby Jesus, too. Anyway, that’s probably the most successful movement.

It’s not like me to pick the slow movement!

The third movement (i.e. second movement part 1) is built on awfully thin material. I guess that’s how Beethoven scherzi are too, and I think Saint-Saëns had Beethoven very much in mind. The whole symphony is, and I’m not exactly making this up myself, a French composer’s aspiration to a more Germanic, Beethovenian form and tone. This third movement is where the borrowing feels most forced. The counter-material is of course the recurring motive from the first movement. Once you’ve noticed that – and you notice it immediately – the movement’s pretty much played all its cards. Then comes the zany trio, which seems to be built out of exploded bits of the rest of the movement. Program notes will invariably mention the appearance of a piano playing rapid scales, but will avoid talking about why this happens, because no matter how many times you hear it, it’s really, really nuts. I respect Saint-Saëns for doing this. Also, the swoopy second theme of the trio is delightful. Don’t know what it has to do with anything else but who cares. It’s comedic in a wry and graceful way and that comes as a pleasant relief.

Then comes the sweet spot (at page 126) preceded by some flagbearers and a guy on a unicycle, which starts us off into the final movement, the most ambitious and sloppiest of all. It took me several listens to realize that the movement is in totally standard sonata form and that the “sweet spot” theme – which, incidentally, is in a flowing 9/4, where it makes sense, and not the confusing quirked-up 4/4 of the reggae version – is actually recapitulated later (just after “AA”). But during the recapitulation, it’s intentionally hobbled – he kicks the legs out from under it so that it flops over prematurely each time it’s stated. This presumably is to maintain a sense of suspense until the very end, which is attended by gargantuan bombast. The whole movement is bloated, and then it ends with a tiered celebration of ascending bloat, a finale that’s very hard for conductors to pull off. There’s a metrical experiment of sorts going on, where the pulse gets only slightly broader while the notation gets vastly broader, and that seems to confuse musicians. The only conductor I heard who had the ending fully in hand was von Karajan.

Dubal’s recommendations were

M. Dupré, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Paray: Mercury 432719-2
Raver, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernstein: CBS MYK 37255
Alain, Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Prêtre: Erato 2292-45696-2

And my favorite recording of the piece overall was indeed the Paul Paray / Detroit one, which I found appealingly direct throughout. The Bernstein / New York recording isn’t particularly distinguished. I couldn’t find the Prêtre / Vienna recording anywhere – here begin my struggles with Dubal’s frequently obscure recommendations – though I did end up buying another Prêtre recording of the same piece, in confusion. Different performance, and not a spectacular one either.

My second choice, and maybe it would be my first choice if I really side-by-sided them, is Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And third comes the von Karajan, which is cold but in a suitably Beethovenian way, and stands head-and-shoulders above the rest in terms of making sense of the score on the whole. He cleans up every mess with ease.

Again my favorites were the oldest two.

Overall review of the piece: This piece is flawed in several ways, and it saddened me when I read that Saint-Saëns said something like “I did things there I will never be able to do again.” Why didn’t he keep aspiring onward in this direction? I think he would have in fact done better the next time around. The piece is full of appealing details and for all its shortcomings, I’ve made friends with it. I’m just not about to open up to it; I have smarter friends for that.

Beth, I can tell you, didn’t like it.


In the order they appear above, with dates of recording. Many of these album covers (and Dubal) name the organist like he’s an important soloist but please. There’s nothing soloistic about it. So I don’t name the organists below.

Orchestre symphonique de Montréal / Charles Dutoit. Decca 475 7728 7 DOR. 1982.
Detroit Symphony Orchestra / Paul Paray. Mercury Living Presence 432 719-2. 1957.
Berliner Philharmoniker / James Levine. Deutsche Grammophon 419 617-2. 1986.
Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan. 439 014-2. 1981.
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra / Lorin Maazel. SK53979. 1993.
Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire / Georges Prêtre. EMI 5 74753 2. 1964.
New York Philharmonic / Leonard Bernstein. CBS MYK 37255. 1978.
Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse / Michel Plasson. EMI 5 56362 2. 1995.
Boston Symphony Orchestra / Charles Munch. RCA 09026-61500-2. 1959.

August 8, 2007

Dispatch from MU 786.4-A

Remember this? Well, I kept going for a little while there. That was the first score on the shelf – these are the second through eighth. This has been sitting in the hopper for some months now, I guess because I thought I might continue further at some point. Ha! Better that I don’t.

Here’s what there was.

Jean Absil (1893-1974): Feeries pour piano, op. 153 (1971) (age 78)
There’s one more Absil to be had here. This consists of six miniatures: Lutins, Elfes, Korrigans, Néréides, Choéphores, Farfadets. Internet tells me these are, in order, Imps, Elves, Goblins, Nereids (Sea Nymphs), Choephori (The Libation Bearers in Aeschylus??), and Leprechauns. These are as a whole better than – but very, very similar to – Alternances. Very low on melody. Seems to disprove my theories as to the meaning of the title of Alternances, since there’s just as much alternance here. Just a habitual style at this point in his life, I guess. Mildly colorful ideas given unimaginative treatment seems to be his thing; miniatures about elves were an appropriate project. But even these are ultimately pretty bland. Again, something old-mannish seems to have happened to him in estimating performance time – 17 minutes, it tells me, but I get absolutely no more than 14. No commercial recording exists, as far as I can tell.

Joseph Achron (1886-1943): Statuettes, Op. 66 (1930) (age 44)
This is one of the intriguing publications of New Music, Henry Cowell’s score periodical with that lovely front cover design. Statuettes comes to us as the October 1931 issue. Achron was and is best known for “Jewish” works, but this, as far as I can tell, isn’t one. It’s a series of seven miniatures, all based – perhaps a bit too directly – on a the same four-note chord/motive. The idiom is sort of generic “modernist,” with an overall debt to Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives and some of the Scriabin miniatures, but a fair bit less emotive than either of those guys. It’s sort of like something someone’s grandfather wrote, poking at the piano in the den. The writing is somewhat primitive and doesn’t immediately offer signs of life, but on the second try, there turns out to be a modicum of charm and thought here. Statuettes presumably because these are meant to be like little angular totems carved out of hard wood, with mildly forbidding expressions, appropriate for placing on the windowsill over the piano in the den. The two really fast ones are harder than the rest and need practice. There is a commercial recording available of this piece, and from the samples I found online it sounds like the guy did a fine job of making it work.

John Adams (1947-): Phrygian Gates (1977) (age 30)
About as successful and prominent a piano piece as has been written in the past 30 years. Several commercial recordings. Heck, this piece even has its own official web page at the composer’s site. This is 22+ minutes of pretty ripples, arranged so that little insignificant things are constantly happening to hold the attention of, if not the listener, at least the performer. It’s monotonous, but a monotony to which taste has been conscientiously applied. Some parts are more fun to play than others; some parts are more fun to listen to than others. I’m not sure there’s any reason why it has to be this long, except maybe just to assert that “even a ripple piece can be monumental.” I guess I don’t have a problem with that, but it doesn’t in itself mean a lot to me, either, so maybe it should have been half as long. The last section is weaker than the beginning. I’m not sure the whole piece adds up to anything more than the sum – or series – of its parts, but a lot of those parts are pleasant. At least to play, and therefrom to imagine. I’ve heard a couple recordings and nobody seems to get it quite right. I remember playing through this score on high school afternoons for the soothing pleasure of all those rolling waves that had been worked out in advance for me. Also the hypnotic, DDR-like challenge of trying to break and reform all the mildly irregular patterns exactly as instructed, as they each arose in the chain – like performing a very very long magic spell that doesn’t do anything. It’s also a little like watching running water – fascinating and touching but content-less. Anyway: endless rolling landscapes are a legitimate source of imaginative pleasure to me, and I guess a lot of other people, since this piece keeps on going.

Paul Adams (?-?): Folk Rock for the Student Pianist (1966)
This is a funny item, in my opinion mis-catalogued. This should be with the pedagogical piano books in 786.3. It’s the 1966 equivalent of From A Wigwam* except these pieces are meant to trick kids into thinking they’re playing the popular-style music they so enjoy. It’s funny because the pieces are so remarkably bad. Not only are they as bad as most pedagogical pieces, but they’re embarrassingly square attempts to capture things on the piano that were never going to sound good on the piano – 1966 things that were pretty corny even in their competent commercial forms – and because they’re weird in ways that only Paul Adams himself could ever explain. Why does one of them (“You Distant Star”) have the following lyrics, to a bizarre, near-Shaggsian melody?

I see you now
I know you are
You seem so strange
so very far
Oh, come back home
You distant star

Far out. The rest are straight instrumentals. The first one is called “Goin’ Bats” and is a copyright runaround on the “Batman” theme, though Adams still manages to sneak in some wrong notes. Some other titles include “Barrels of Beetles,” “Monkey Business,” “Discotheque A Go Go,” “Space Echo,” and “Rock Bottom.”

To further everyone’s musical education, I here offer the score of “Rough ‘N’ Tough,” with all due apologies to Mills Music and to Mr. Adams, wherever he may be.

Richard Addinsell (1904-1977): Warsaw Concerto (arr. by Henry Geehl) (1941) (age 37)
An imitation of Rachmaninoff, of course, but done with absolutely no taste. As evidenced, for example, by the 14 consecutive C minor chords with which it begins. It’s hard to believe that this is “the popular Warsaw Concerto” about which I’ve heard so much. As a stand-in for classical music in a movie called Suicide Squadron (USA) (new title), it’s fine – potentially even effective. In snippets, maybe. But why would anyone want to listen to this or play it in its arbitrary concert entirety? The whole thing rides on the melodramatic force of a couple big chord changes, but they’re the Max-Steiner-iest sort of hack. The voicing is thick and lazy, like someone demonstrating a tune they’ve just thought up before actually working it out. The themes die out after just barely a phrase and then have nothing to do but repeat immediately, several times. And the business between the themes is just the foggiest sort of impression of the kinds of things that go on in classical music. The whole manages to remind one of the distant, abstract concept of stirring music without being even remotely stirring music. And even given that lowly goal, it could be a lot better.

Richard Addinsell: Theme from the Warsaw Concerto (1941)
This is even worse. You’d think an abbreviated version would work better than the original, but it doesn’t.

Samuel Adler (1928-): Bridges to Span Adversity (1989) (age 61)
For harpsichord. Two short movements. What little I know of Adler’s music seems all the same – shapes and noises from the field guide to 20th-century shapes and noises, bouncing around, but to no end. I can’t tell you why these doodles doodled the way they did and not otherwise and I’m not sure he could either. More importantly, they don’t sound like anything much so one’s hardly motivated to go in search of sense. A few nice touches in the mix are nicely canceled out by a lot of pointless business. This is the sort of thing that looks like it might be fun, when you see the score – a lot of clean but irregular rhythms. But that in itself isn’t music, and here it is indeed in itself. Sort of seems like the biggest compositional choices here are the scoring and titling, and the notes themselves are just a way to make sure the piece includes some notes. That may be unfair but, you know, I think a composer should aim to leave his listener convinced that that’s not the case, and I genuinely wasn’t convinced. Now that it occurs to me that Mr. Adler might, conceivably, see this, I feel like I owe it another look before I post so dismissive an appraisal. But sorry, I already returned it to the library. You can listen to the recording and decide for yourself. It’s the last two sound samples at that link.

* By John Thompson (1889-1963).