Alone in the Fields with the Sky to Contemplate

Summer melancholy. © Charles Thibo

Je suis seul dans la prairie
Assis au bord du ruisseau ;
Déjà la feuille flétrie,
Qu’un flot paresseux charrie,
Jaunit l’écume de l’eau.

La respiration douce
Des bois au milieu du jour
Donne une lente secousse
A la vague, au brin de mousse,
Au feuillage d’alentour…1

It is the beginning of a poem I quote here, written by the French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine and called “Cantique sur un rayon de soleil” (Song about a Sunbeam). When I read this poem for the first time I had to think about a Romantic composition by Camille de Saint-Saëns, imbued by melancholy, oscillating between tragic and buoyant, sad and joyful, tender and harsh: the Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor, op. 61. Lamartine published the poem in 1839, Saint-Saëns wrote his piece 40 years later, in March 1880. He wrote it for the violinist Pablo de Sarasate, who gave the first performance of the composition in Paris in autumn 1880.

The first movement begins with a soft tremolo* of the strings and a rumbling of the timpani providing a background for a virtuosic entry of the solo violin with a harsh, edgy theme. The music alternates between passionate and tender, with dramatic contrasts. The second movement starts on a Bacarolle, a melody inspired by the a traditional folk song sung by Venetian gondoliers, or a piece of music composed in that style the traditional folk song sung by Venetian gondoliers of the same name. The winds and the violin enter in a gentle, lyrical dialogue, faintly echoed by the orchestra. Towards the end of this movement the violin line into the upper tonalities giving it an exquisite fragility.

The last movement is opened by a slow theme for the violin, echoed by the orchestra, a construction that one would rather have expected at the beginning of a first movement. It partly builds on Saint-Saëns’ “Caprice Brillant” composed in 1859. A delicate pizzicato* is contrasted by a dark melodic line of the orchestra. The orchestra plays a more important role – which is more than fair considering the almost exclusive role of the soloist [read: the vain Sarasate] in the other movements. I really like the short choral-like section with the brass coming forward, accompanied by the strings, leading to the final glorious part of the solo violin.

The French composer and music critic Philippe Majorelle compared in a work dedicated to Saint-Saëns the composer with Ludwig van Beethoven, Saint-Saëns being the French Beethoven. On the one hand Saint-Saëns erected his music upon the foundations built by Johann Sebastian Bach and the Vienna classics, Beethoven among others. On the other hand he used techniques that have their origin in the late Romantic era, i. e. in Richard Wagner’s and Franz Liszt’s music. He preserved the tradition at the turning point of the 19th to the 20th century while at the same time he did not hesitate to use exotic modes and daring harmonies. In France he was the last of his kind. Of this kind. After Saint-Saëns, modernity, represented by Claude Debussy, Edgar Fauré and Maurice Ravel took over. Exit Romanticism.

© Charles Thibo

1 The full text of the poem is available here. Hereafter you will find the translation of the first part:

I’m alone in the fields
Sitting at the riverside.
Already the withered leaf
Carried by a lazy stream
Renders the foam yellow.

The soft breath
Of the woods at the middle of the day
Gives a gentle push
To the waves, to the wisp of the moss,
To the surrounding foliage.

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de Chareli

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