A majestic symphony, a prelude to Napoleon III

Royal colours. © Charles Thibo

I remember the moment I decided to write this post in every detail. A year ago on a free afternoon I was driving home and shortly before I would pass the speed radar I focused for the split of a second on those golden trees at the roadside against the blue sky – royal colours. I was listening to Camille de Saint-Saëns’ Symphony in A major – a majestic sound. I stopped the car, got out and shot that picture. It was a warm, sunny day, a light breeze made the leaves rattle, the road was empty. I went back to the car, sat on the driver’s seat, the door open, and listened to that beautiful music. I was in no hurry and enjoyed a magic moment. Happiness.

Saint-Saëns wrote this symphony at the age of 15. I let that sink in. He was 15 years old. He had entered the Conservatoire de Paris two years earlier. He had studied the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn, he had absorbed the Vienna style and here he goes and composes in 1850 on the fly a symphony that testifies of a rare maturity. The work was published only after Saint-Saëns death, it has no opus number. And it most likely was never performed while Saint-Saëns lived.

1850: Paris in turmoil

Blue and gold – the colours of French kings. 1850 – a year of political tension in France. Parliament was split in a conservative democratic majority and a rising force, the “Bonapartism” that aimed to establish a republican system led by an emperor, inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime. In 1848 Charles-Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the legendary emperor, was elected president of France. However he was dissatisfied with the limitations to his power and a 30-months-long struggle came to an end when the Bonapartists mounted a coup in 1852 and the said president Bonaparte declared himself emperor and took on the name of Napoleon III.

Democracy is a fragile thing, and in difficult times the call for a strong leader – a king, an emperor, a dear leader, a great president – is a tempting trap. France walked into that trap. Bonapartism would end with the 1870-71 war against Prussia and a humiliating French defeat. Did the young composer have a premonition about the events that were to come? Was he, as a young man, already an homo politicus? Did he feel nostalgic for France’s past grandeur under its pompous kings?

At the beginning of a great career

I doubt it. In all likelihood, political events did not really trouble young Camille. He might have been excited by the tension he felt in the City of Light, by what grown-up s spoke about, by what he read in the papers, but at this time he was busy studying and looking for a job as an musician. He was 15, he still lived at home and he was, like so many young artists of his time, fascinated by Spain, its traditions, its vibrant folk culture – one of many sources of inspiration for the composer.

I don’t know what precisely he had in mind when he wrote the Symphony in A major, however since he wanted to follow Beethoven’s tradition of writing pure music, any specific program behind the music can be ruled out. I assume he saw this work as a way to test his composition skills. A+, I woud say. Camille de Saint-Saëns’ symphonies have been recorded by the Orchestre national de l’ORTF under Jean Martinon.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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