It was Charles Gounod who described his contemporary Camille Saint-Saëns as “the French Beethoven,” a judgment most of us would be hard-pressed to understand, much less support. True, the Frenchman was a gifted pianist (and he even composed five concertos for the instrument). Yes, he did write symphonies, but not nine, and only one (his splendidly noisy “Organ” Symphony) gets played. He actually wrote more operas than Beethoven, but again, only one (Samson and Delilah) is performed. Of course there could never be another Beethoven, something even Brahms had to accept despite the legacy that intimidated him for years. (Actually, Méhul might have been the French Beethoven, but that, as we say, is another story.)
Saint-Saëns did live much longer than Beethoven (who died in his 57th year), and he did develop a “late style” as he lived on into the 20th century. This stylistic shift was certainly not a concession to the modern techniques of Schoenberg or Stravinsky, but it can be seen as a parallel to similar developments in the later works of his pupil Gabriel Fauré. He even began to write chamber works without a part for his own instrument, the piano.
In 1907 Saint-Saëns composed a lightly scored single-movement duo for violin and harp, calling it a “Fantaisie.” The two instruments complement one another in different ways as the work makes its way through a series of episodes. At first the violin sings the solo line, accompanied by the harp; then the roles are less clearly defined. Eventually they even exchange places in the musical texture, with the violin providing support beneath virtuosic activity in the harp. In the cyclic manner of many French composers of the time, the opening materials are recalled in the closing pages of this intriguing work that is so unlike most of what we know from the composer of Danse macabre and Carnival of the Animals.
Dennis Bade is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Associate Director of Publications.