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Wednesday
Jan122011

Bach, Beethoven, Saint-Saëns?

I know, I know -- you were expecting the list to end with that other old bearded fellow. But while Johannes Brahms was certainly a great composer, he's really not hurting for exposure right now. Like Bach and Beethoven, every single one of his surviving works has been recorded multiple times, and most have been performed and recorded so often that it's impossible to quantify.

Camille Saint-Saëns, on the other hand, has not been so lucky in the years since his death. He is chiefly remembered today for The Carnival of the Animals, a light musical joke written for friends which (with the exception of one movement, "The Swan") he did not allow to be published during his lifetime, perhaps because he had a premontion that it might distract from his more serious work. And it certainly has eclipsed everything else he wrote in terms of popularity, even his great "Organ" Symphony (No. 3)

What you may not know, however, is that Saint-Saëns wrote five excellent symphonies, ten concertos (that number is much higher if you include numerous works which qualify as concertos today, even if he did not title them as such), and twelve complete operas. Yet only one work in each of these genres has even managed to stay at the fringes of the repertoire: Symphony No. 3, Piano Concerto No. 2, Violin Concerto No. 3, Cello Concerto No. 1, and the opera, Samson and Delilah. Even recordings of the others are so uncommon they can usually be counted on one hand. In fact only three other operas of his (many of which were critical and/or commercial sucesses in his lifetime) have ever been recorded, and those three have enjoyed only one recording each.

I'm here to tell you this is a crying shame. Well, I cry about it anyway...and I'm sure that if you dare to explore his music further you'll cry too. Contrary to his unfortunate reputation (sadly shared by many a Frenchman) the vast majority of his unique ouvre is far from superficial fluff. His chamber music is profound, his requiem an unsung masterpiece. And even the most superficial fluff he wrote (most composers wrote some, after all) has a twinkle and sparkle of wit behind it that few composers of any era could match. In my ever-so-humble opinion, Saint-Saëns's music has such spirit -- almost a magical quality -- that he deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as any other great composer you could mention.

Over the rest of the month I will be using this blog to discuss his music in further detail, spotlighting five essential albums to start you down the path of enlightenment. To make things just a little easier on you, and in celebration of Camille Saint-Saëns, our first official Joel's Classical Shop Composer of the Month, for the whole of January 2011 all recordings containing his music will be discounted 10% off at the register! (This will even apply to special orders you make if they arrive after January.) Come on in and learn more about one of the greatest musical geniuses in recorded history.

Your friend in music,

Yavar