Camille Saint-Saëns & Dame Ethel Smyth
By Byron Addams
Born October 9, 1835, in Paris, France
Died December 16, 1921, in Algiers, Algeria
Symphony No. 3, Op. 78, 1886
Premiered on May 19, 1886, in London, U.K., Conducted by Camille Saint-Saëns
Performance Time: Approximately 36 minutes
In 1878, Camille Saint-Saëns endured a double tragedy. On May 28, his young son André died when he fell from the window of the family apartment onto the courtyard below, and on July 7, his infant son Jean-François died of an illness. As often happens, these deaths essentially destroyed his marriage to Marie-Laure (née Truffot) in 1881, but, bowing to the conventions of the time, they never divorced. Despite these traumatic events, Saint-Saëns continued to compose, producing his operatic masterpiece, Henri VIII, which was premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1883.
In the summer of 1885, Francesco Berger, secretary of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, broached the possibility of commissioning Saint-Saëns for a new score: “Would you be able to compose some Symphonic Work expressly for next season?” Saint-Saëns promptly accepted Berger’s offer and promised that he would try his best. Berger and the Royal Philharmonic Society must have been pleased with the result. On May 19,1886, in a concert that took place at St. James’s Hall in London, Saint-Saëns played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto on the first part and then conducted the acclaimed premiere of his new symphony on the second part. As Sabina Teller Ratner observes, “The most successful of Saint-Saëns’s English commissions remains his Symphony in C minor, Op.78.”
With his knowledge of music history, Saint-Saëns knew that the Royal Philharmonic Society had commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1817. Saint-Saëns followed Beethoven’s example in several ways: through the innovative form of his symphony, which is cast in two broad sections; through the use of the organ, which is analogous to the chorus in the Ninth Symphony’s finale; and through a symphonic rhetoric that proceeds from darkness to light. The Symphony in C minor had another powerful impetus, however: the declining health of Franz Liszt, whom Saint-Saëns revered as a great composer and loyal friend. Although Liszt died before the symphony’s premiere, Saint-Saëns was able to play parts of the score to his ailing friend. Saint-Saëns may have incorporated allusions to Liszt’s music within the symphony. Commentators have noted the resemblance of the first movement’s opening theme to the Dies Irae chant from the plainsong Requiem Mass, which Liszt had used in his Totentanz for piano and orchestra (1849). A further connection with Liszt may well come at the beginning of Saint-Saëns’s finale, when the symphony’s main motif is transformed from minor into major. This transformation recalls Liszt’s touching piano piece Chanson D’Archedelt “Ave Maria” (1865). The latter piece, cast in a C major, is based on an arrangement of a secular chanson by the Renaissance composer Jacques Archedelt that Pierre-Louis Dietsch, a colleague of Saint-Saëns’s at the École Niedermeyer, turned into an Ave Maria.
Whatever allusions that Saint-Saëns wove in the musical fabric of his symphony, he regarded it as a summation of his career, and, perhaps, of the tragedies he endured: “I gave everything to it that I was able to give. What I have accomplished here, I will never achieve again.”
Dame Ethel Smyth
Born April 22, 1858, in London, U.K.
Died May 8, 1944, in Woking, U.K.
Mass in D
Premiered on January 18, 1893, in London, U.K., Conducted by Sir Joseph Barnby
Performance Time: Approximately 1 hour, 5 minutes
During a 1958 radio broadcast marking the centenary of Dame Ethel Smyth’s birth, the English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham recalled, “She was a composer of spirit, vigor, with a talent for emphasis, accent on what you might vulgarly called ‘guts’ . . . I think that the culminating point of her life and achievement was sometime in the early thirties when, in conjunction with others, notably my friend Sir Hugh Allen, we organized a festival for her: several concerts at Queen’s Hall and occasions elsewhere.” Beecham continued by remarking, “I can only say that she had a great deal of difficulty over her compositions. She was a perfectionist.” Finally, he paid Smyth a remarkable tribute: “There is no doubt that Ethel was certainly one of the most remarkable women this country has ever produced or any country has ever produced.”
Smyth was born into a military family. Her father, who was a major general in the Royal Artillery, was strenuously opposed to his daughter pursuing a musical career. Her determination overcame all familial impediments, however, and she matriculated at the Leipzig Conservatory, studying with the conservative Carl Reinecke. Dissatisfied with his teaching, Smyth then took lessons with the composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg, who introduced her to several important composers including Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Clara Schumann. On her return to England, she was encouraged by Sir Arthur Sullivan. She became involved with the women’s suffrage movement, and served time in Holloway Prison for acts of civil disobedience. Smyth is remembered as a lesbian composer: most of her romantic attachments were to women with the notable exception of the writer Henry Bennett Brewster. Her affairs included many influential women in politics, letters, and the arts, among them Virginia Woolf.
By any measure, Smyth’s musical achievements were remarkable. Her opera, Der Wald, was performed at Covent Garden in 1902 and in New York at the Metropolitan Opera in 1903. Unfortunately, Smyth noticed a distortion in her hearing beginning in 1919. The problem worsened steadily, until by the time of the 1934 festival of her music organized by Beecham, she was completely deaf, unable to hear either her music or the audience’s cheers.
Smyth composed the Mass in D, one of her finest scores, during the summer of 1891. It was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall by Joseph Barnby conducting the Royal Choral Society on January 18, 1893. The Mass was revived to great acclaim on February 7, 1924, when Adrian Boult conducted the Festival Choral Society in Birmingham: he repeated the performance in London in March. Writing of this revival in The Musical Times, Sydney Grew praised the score: “The contrapuntal writing is of high quality.” The esteemed music analyst Donald Francis Tovey noted, “This music is, throughout, like Spinoza, God-intoxicated…the classical Mass that evidently agrees most nearly with the composer’s outlook is Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.” Following the Anglican liturgical practice of her day, Smyth places the Gloria at the end of this radiant, moving, and triumphal score.
Written by Byron Adams, Emeritus Professor of Musicology, University of California, Riverside.