I got the idea to write this post half a year ago, when I boarded the train from Paris to Luxembourg. After a short business trip (an excellent excuse to book a ticket at the Opéra Garnier and enjoy Aribert Reimann’s “Lear”), I was sorry to leave. Paris has fascinated me since my first weekend escapes to Paris when I was a student. A friend of mine living in Paris regularly travelled to Munich to see her boyfriend and I was free to use her apartment for two or three days. I would hop on the night train and Paris was mine! So when I boarded the TGV in June this year, I picked a lovely piece of chamber music as a farewell melody. In 1853, Camille de Saint Saëns wrote his Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viol and Cello in E major. Good-bye Paris then, good-bye 2016 now.
The first movement is a nostalgic look back, leaving someone beloved behind, reminiscent of the good time one had, a little sad and at the same time hoping to see each other back soon. One of the themes is picked up and developed in the second movement. By then the train was running smoothly and had already left Paris behind. I was heading home and eager to see my family back. I had been away for less than 48 hours and still… I particularly like the second movement. So soft, so tender… The third movement picks up this theme too, but in a much more dynamic and vigorous manner.
When Saint-Saëns wrote this quartet, he was at the very beginning of his career as a composer, organist and pianist. It is one of his earliest works, which explains that it has no opus number. He had just taken up the organist’s post at a church in Paris, Saint-Merri. He would stay there for five years and though it was not a prestigious post, it secured him a regular income and he could devote his spare time to compose. Writing the quartet took him a year and a half, the structure follows the Vienna classics while the expression is closer to the German romanticism. Balanced and not too exuberant in any direction – Saint-Saëns had studied the works of Felix Mendelssohn.
Can you believe that this piece has never been performed in public before 1992? In 1993, the Quatuor Elyséen recorded this piece along with Saint-Saëns’ better known quartet in B flat major (Op. 41). Most online resources don’t even mention the piece in the chapters devoted to the composer. What a shame! One of the reasons is most likely the fact that the score had been thought lost for a long time. Other scores, Saint-Saëns’ very early works, have not even been published so far. There’s more to discover. Saint-Saëns? Ce n’est qu’un au revoir!
© Charles Thibo