Camille Saint-Saëns – Les Noces de Prométhée Op. 19 (1867)
(b. Paris, 9. Oct. 1835 – d. Algiers, 16. Dec. 1921)
“There’s nothing banal about this score”, writes Oscar Comettant about Camille Saint-Saëns’s cantata in his collection of documents about the Parisian World Exposition of 1867. In honour of this occasion, Napoléon III. had announced a poets’ and composers’ competition for a cantata written for soli, choir and orchestra, as well as for a short “Hymne à la paix”. From over a hundred settings of the prized cantata text by Romain Cornut, in which the liberated Prometheus weds Humanity in an allegory of progress, the 31-year-old Saint-Saëns unanimously emerged the winner.
Although the published rules of the competition already included an anonymous submission of the compositions, each only labelled by a motto and handed in with a sealed envelope containing name and address of the author, Saint-Saëns had – possibly as a burnt child of the lost Prix de Rome – taken another precaution to disguise his identity: If we believe his fellow competitor Georges Bizet’s report (who, in turn, had asked his friend Édmond Galabert to copy his hymn so as not to be recognised by his handwriting), Saint-Saëns submitted his cantata on English paper.
It is possible that such a shift, together with an unusually “Wagnerian” instrumentation (as described by Comettant), contributed to the jury initially taking the piece for an international entry. Bizet, who was very frustrated by his defeat in the penultimate round, writes to Galabert: “[These] gentlemen thought they were bestowing the prize upon a stranger!!!!!! […] I was upset for half an hour. It’s important that my participation in the competition shall not be known […].” Thus, Bizet conceals his defeat before his friend Saint-Saëns as well and adds the following to his congratulations: “[I] regret not having participated – I would have had the honour of being bested by you.” …
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