One can debate whether it is legitimate to do what I did with Bela Bartok lately. I mean, offering my personal thoughts and feelings triggered by Bartok String Quartet No. 5 as an interpretation of a piece of music. I love to debate and I have the wisdom of Umberto Eco on my side. Come on, challenge me! No? Then I shall do it again. With another piece, Camille de Saint-Saëns’ Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1 in C minor, Op. 32, written in 1872. I suggest you enjoy the recording by Stephen Isserlis (cello) and Pascal Devoyon (piano).
Emotions boiling over
I imagine two men in their fifties, wrapped in coats. It is autumn, and while the multiple colors of the dying leaves are a wonderful sight, a cold wind is blowing. These two men, both bearded and wearing hats by the way, are out for a walk. The are trapped in a long discussion that goes back and forth. They are friends and they disagree over a personal decision of one of them. At times, they talk calmly one to the other, at others they argue with passion, underlining their points with agitated gestures. Emotions are at work here, opposed by reason and common sense. They will not return back home before they have reached an agreement or before one of them has given in.
From time to time the debate pauses, they men need to catch their breath, one may point out a particular tree along the unpaved road or a bird flying by. Then they resume the debate. One launches into a long reprimanding monologue. The other stays quiet, his face is full of sadness and grief. He sees a long friendship coming to end in a quarrel over moral principles. He sighs and remembers happy moments when they were much younger. His mind drifts and while the other insists on his opinion, he begs him to drop the matter. His eyes are wet, he’s tired, he gives up. And implores his counterpart to stop arguing.
It takes a while until that last message get’s through. There can be no winner here, no compromise. They stop and look at each other. The unspoken question is: How can they mend what came apart?
The French composer and critic Philippe Majorelle speaks of a “violent inspiration” and compares Saint-Saëns’ sonata to a permanent struggle. Themes built like Baroque fugues in the first two movements illustrate this point. The origin of the second movement is an improvisation for the organ performed at a funeral, and Saint-Saëns being a church musician was an expert on counterpoint*. About the last movement, a piano prelude written in 1866 and completely revised for the sonata, Majorelle writes: “One can feel, in the rewritten movement, a contained rage.”
The music researcher Jacques Bonnaure speaks about a boiling piece marking the maturity of Saint-Saëns’ style. “The tension between the accomplished form [the Beethovian classic form] and the lyrical expression [inherited from the German Romanticists] is particularly vivid in the First Sonata for Cello and Piano in C minor.” This piece is unlike any other among the composer’s works and I have grown really fond of it. The violence of its subject confers it a singular dynamic and emotional depth, while the masterful arrangement of the themes and tonalities leaves me in awe before Saint-Saëns genius.
© Charles Thibo