18 Oct 2017

The Legacy of Camille Saint-Saëns

by Erin Lunsford


When one thinks of the music of 19th-century French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), what comes to mind? Perhaps the sultry Middle Eastern melodies of Samson et Delila, or the triumphant, brassy finale of the “Organ” Symphony. Perhaps even the glittery, whimsical tunes that permeate Carnival of the Animals. These are all fantastic examples of Saint-Saëns’ unmatched musical style, but there is so much more to this composer than his few most famous works.

Saint-Saëns left an immense musical legacy behind, having written five symphonies, five piano concertos, several operas (and operettas), incidental music, a wide breadth of chamber music, and numerous works for solo piano and solo organ. The Saint-Saëns Project focuses mainly on the composer’s five symphonies; only one of which is regularly performed by American orchestras (Symphony No. 3, his final attempt at the form). Additionally, the Utah Symphony will record some of his more well-known, shorter orchestral works, including Bacchanale from Samson et DelilaDanse macabre, and ‒ perhaps his most famous work of all ‒ Carnival of the Animals.


Saint-Saëns occupied a particularly unique stylistic space in his compositions; bringing the influences of the composers he most admired (Liszt, Wagner, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven, to name a few) as well as the musical idioms of far-flung destinations (including Egypt, Algeria, and Japan) into the sphere of French Romanticism. Similar to the Romantic Movement that took hold in Austria and Germany in the mid-1800s, French Romanticism was marked by a preoccupation with drama on a historical and an individual level, a heightened interest in national identity, and a general expansion or rejection of existing musical structures. As some of his late-19th-century contemporaries were forging new paths at the edges of tonal music, Saint-Saëns was firmly rooted in the classical conventions of French composers before him, making him an unusual figure within the framework of the Romantic period. Despite this, his signature use of colorful harmony influenced the French Impressionist composers that would rise to popularity toward the end of his life. The confluence of these seemingly disparate stylistic attributes is what makes Saint-Saëns’ music so intoxicating and irresistible. He is able to seamlessly weave unusual, exotic harmonies and melodic lines into ingrained musical forms, simultaneously surprising and delighting the listener’s ear.


Saint-Saëns’ music is clearly worth learning and exploring, but why record so much of it? As our Vice President of Operations and General Manager, Jeff Counts, wrote in a playbill feature last year, recording raises the level of artistic excellence and focus in an ensemble. Beyond that, recording also allows an orchestra to put its distinct interpretation of a work into the world, to stand and be judged among other orchestras’ interpretations. In the case of Saint-Saëns, however, some works have rarely been recorded at all. For example, his Trois tableaux symphoniques après La foi – another non-symphonic orchestral work that will be included in the recording project – has been commercially recorded less than ten times. This recording project on European label, Hyperion, will make the Utah Symphony the first American orchestra to record all of Saint-Saëns’ five symphonies, giving the orchestra the extraordinary opportunity to become a leading voice in the interpretation of Saint-Saëns’ works.

While many contemporaries and students of Saint-Saëns considered him to be a genius, his influence is certainly felt less in the orchestral world today.  For this reason, recording three discs worth of his music will be no easy feat, especially because this music is both technically and artistically difficult. Due to the logistical challenges of live recording, most of the repertoire that will be recorded is piled into consecutive weeks. Recording weeks are exhausting, as players are operating at the highest possible level of artistic awareness. Nevertheless, our musicians are certainly up to the task. Over the past five seasons, the Utah Symphony has taken on many symphonic cycles, covering some of the most revered symphonists in history (Beethoven and Brahms) as well as composers who challenged the very idea of what defined a symphony (Mahler and Ives). It is now time to shift the focus to a composer whose works, as Music Director Thierry Fischer has pointed out, truly embody the artistic identity of the Utah Symphony in their audacity, spunk, excellence, bravery, creativity, and – perhaps most importantly – their balance between tradition and diversity. How fitting a challenge to further Saint-Saëns’ legacy.

Utah Symphony Artist Logistics Coordinator Erin Lunsford takes care of the many guest artists and guest conductors that perform with the orchestra. She holds a Bachelor of Music in Bassoon Performance from the University of North Carolina, and still enjoys playing bassoon and studying music history in her spare time.