Rapsodie Bretonne, Op.7 bis for orchestra (1re et 3e rapsodie sur des cantiques bretons, op. 7 bis) 2 movements
(b Paris, 9 October 1835; d Algiers, 16 December 1921).
Rapsodie Bretonne, Op.7 bis
(1re et 3e rapsodie sur des cantiques bretons, op. 7 bis)
This rarely heard orchestral work Rapsodie Bretonne, by the compositionally prolific Camille Saint-Saëns, is a demonstration of his approach to both organ writing and to orchestral writing, and to his use of free forms, denoted by the title term Rapsodie, and moreover, of his compositional style, notably the ways in which he ‘placed limits on the possibilities of musical expression by insisting on fixed principles of form and style’ (Caballero, 2001, 29). Saint-Saëns is not only a renowned composer, but he was also an excellent organist, a teacher, a writer, and one of the founders of the Société national de musique in 1871. He was active as an organist at Madelaine during 1857–1875: on hearing him play, Liszt declared him to be the ‘greatest’ organist (Grove online). He was a teacher at the Ecole Neidemeyer during 1861–1865 where his pupils included Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924). Then he wrote regularly for recognised journals of the day, including regular contributions during the 1870s to Renaissance littéraire et artistique, Revue bleue and Gazette musical.
Balancing his interest in French national culture is Saint-Saëns’ experience of world music gained through his many travels abroad. He visited much of Europe and developed a particular relationship with England, leading to a commission from the Philharmonic Society for his Third Symphony, which was premiered in London and conducted by the composer (1886); later he received honorary doctorates from both the University of Cambridge (1893) and the University of Oxford (1907). Comparable with the national recognition he would receive in France, he was awarded the Commander of the Victoria Order in 1902 following the March he composed for the coronation of Edward VII. Elsewhere in Europe, he notably made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth in 1876. He also travelled to North Africa, an experience which informed many of his works, and he visited South America. This may be what led Claude Debussy, writing as Monsieur Croche, to declare that ‘Saint-Saëns knows the world’s music much better than anyone’ (Langham-Smith, 1988, 142). This world perspective and national patriotism can be read in his books and notably within his famous set of essays ‘Germanphilie’ (1914) in which he advocates for a ban on German music in France during the war. As one of the old guard, a senior respected French figure, his words sparked much debate. It is notable that when the committee agreed to include foreign music in 1886, Saint-Saëns left the Société national de musique. In this context, it is very important that we should revisit the works in which Saint-Saëns specifically incorporated Gallic folk music, traditions and citations.
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