A classicist in a modern epoch

Camille Saint-Saëns – Musique religieuse

When Camille Saint-Saëns died in Algiers in 1921 at the age of 86 he had outlived several epochs and stylistic changes in musical history. Despite the image of conservatism and awareness of tradition which remained with him, indeed partly because of it, the music-loving public regarded him – along with the more eccentric Berlioz – as a leading representative of 19th-century Musique française. His importance lay not only in his capacity as a composer, but also as a conductor and performer (as a pianist) of his own works, as well as an organist in churches of his native city Paris (Église Saint-Merri 1853–58, Église de la Madeleine 1858–77). Saint-Saëns was fully aware of the eclectic elements to his music, without this impairing its positive creative force.

All audio samples from:
Camille Saint-Saëns
Oratorio de Noël

Vocalensemble Rastatt
Les Favorites
Holger Speck
CD Carus 83.352

Saint-Saëns’ oeuvre encompasses virtually all of the musical genres of his time: four symphonies, several symphonic poems, incidental music, pittoresque orchestral suites (such as the popular Carnaval des animaux of 1886, concertos for piano, violin and violoncello, several oratorios and cantatas as well as – indispensable for a French composer of high standing – twelve operas, although only one of them, the three-act opera Samson et Dalila, first performed in 1877, entered the repertoire. The large-scale works are joined by songs with either piano or orchestral accompaniment, chamber music, piano and organ music.

His extensive catalogue of works also includes church music to French, and particularly Latin texts. These works range from short choral pieces, often with organ accompaniment, to large-scale liturgical works and oratorios. In addition to a Mass (1856), a Requiem (1878) and two richly-scored psalm settings with orchestral accompaniments the three biblical oratorios Oratorio de Noël, Le Déluge – Poème biblique (1875) and La Terre promise (1913) should especially be mentioned. Of these works, only the Latin Oratorio de Noël has taken a place among the canon of Christmas oratorios.

Camille Saint-Saëns

Conceived at the end of the 1850s, this work was completed in 1860, but its first performance was not given until 15 December 1869 in La Madeleine church. This ten-movement work is scored for soli, 4-part mixed choir, string quintet, harp and organ. The obbligato organ part calls for a typical “romantic” instrument of the period with a wide palette of basic tone colors. In contrast to the organ, which is continuously used, the harp appears – for a special effect – in only three pieces: in the Duet, No. 5 Benedictus, qui venit, in the Trio, No. 7 Tecum principium (here it continuously plays arpeggios suited expressly to the instrument as the only instrumental accompaniment apart from the organ, which plays in delicate registers), and at the end of the Quintet with chorus, No. 9 Consurge, Filia Sion. The libretto of this work is a series of Christmas episodes with a liturgical rather than a narrative character. It is based on passages from both the Old and the New Testament: from the story of Christmas according to St. Luke, from the Gospel of St. John, the Psalms (or passages based on the propers from Christmas Masses), from the prophet Isaiah and from Lamentations.

Oratorio de Noël

Camille Saint-Saëns composed his Oratorio de Noël for five vocal soloists, mixed choir, strings, organ and harp. The work, sung in Latin, is based on texts from the Old and New Testaments, the Psalms and Gospels, as well as the Catholic Christmas liturgy. A distinctive chamber music-like instrumentation, with lyrical soloistic parts and a modest choral part combine to create a basic pastoral mood which has led this Christmas Oratorio to become one of the most performed works by Saint-Saëns. Carus offers this work both in its original version and in an arrangement in which the choir is accompanied solely by an organ.

Oratorio de Noël für Chor und Orgel

Carus offers this work both in its original version and in an arrangement in which the choir is accompanied solely by an organ.

Messe à quatre voix

Saint-Saens Messe a quatre voixCarus-Verlag is publishing this early work by Camille Saint-Saëns in a critical new edition. Among the sacred works by Saint-Saëns there are just two settings of the mass: the “Messe de Requiem” op. 54 from his middle period (1878), and the Mass op. 4 dating from 1856.

Organ version of the Messe à quatre voix

As an alternative to the original version with large orchestra and Grand Orgue, Carus-Verlag also published the version for organ made by Saint-Saëns’s contemporary Léon Roques. It contains the original part for grand orgue as well as an organ arrangement of the orchestral writing in score notation, but also provides for the possibility of a performance with just one instrument. The vocal parts (for soloists and choir) are identical with the edition of the original version, so that the vocal score and chorus score of that version can be used.

Messe de Requiem op. 54

Saint-Saens Messe de Requiem

The colorful and opulently orchestrated Messe de Requiem was composed in 1878 in Bern. The composer dedicated it to his patron, Albert Libon. We have published this edition both with its larger orchestral forces and to enable perfomances of the Requiem in slightly reduced scoring (without losing the special characteristics of the work),  in a version with a smaller orchestra consisting of 11 winds, two harps, organ and string instruments. The full score reproduces the Urtext of the Requiem with its original scoring, whereas the performance material is presented and conceived so to enable it to be performed either in the original orchestration or the version with reduced forces.

Messe de Requiem op. 54 - reduced version

Saint-Saëns’ colorful Messe de Requiem op. 54, originally opulently scored, is published here in an ingenious reduced version, so that smaller choirs, and choirs with more limited resources of space or finance can also perform this attractive work with smaller instrumental forces.

The Oratorio do Noël was the work of the 25-yearold Saint-Saëns, who was not yet acclaimed in Europe and the USA as a “classicist” of recent French music. A gentle harmonization, with chords of the seventh and mediants, not unlike that of Mendelssohn, is prevalent. The orchestra is used throughout almost as in chamber music, and sometimes the organ is the only accompanying instrument. Only occasionally, as at the beginning of the Chorus, No. 6 Quare fremuerunt gentes, is there a more dramatic character, in contrast to the otherwise predominately intimate lyricism. The solo singers emphasize the songlike, hymn like elements, sometimes also suggesting the character of liturgical plainsong. The choral writing is also noticeably straightforward, and for the most part it is treated mostly syllabically.

The purely instrumental beginning of the work has always attracted especial attention because of its clear allusion to a great historical model: Saint-Saëns begins with a prelude expressly marked Prélude dans le style de Séb. Bach. It seems likely (even if it cannot be proven) that the broadly swaying 12/8 Pastorale in G major for strings and organ was inspired by the pastoral Sinfonia which opens the second cantata of Bach’s Christmas oratorio, in the same key and time signature, and which is also characterized by a dotted Siciliano rhythm. Saint-Saëns subscribed to the so-called old Bach Complete Edition, in which shortly before, in 1856, Bach’s Oratorio had appeared. Nevertheless his Prélude is not a historical stylistic copy but a genre piece, which expresses a sentimentalized view of Bach, typical of the age, such as Charles Gounod revealed in his (Ave Maria) Méditation on the C major Prelude in The Well-Tempered Clavier I. In No. 9 (solo quintet and choir) the theme of the pastoral Prelude is taken up again in the same key, before the work ends with a homophonic, choralelike chorus (with colla parte instruments) in the basic key of G major.

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