Critics, Schmitics… Saint-Saens Rocked

saint s

I have only two credentials qualifying me as judge for orchestral music:  my ears.  Nevertheless, I consider Camille Saint-Saens one of greatest composers ever.

Even before I started this blog, I noticed that academic types are usually the ones writing the most respected and widely disseminated views of art.  I think this very fact skews art appreciation—turning it away from the GOOD, and toward the merely complex or innovative.

For the academic-type, it is not enough that he merely share his art-finds– he will feel tugging at him with each discovery a natural and probably subconscious urge to justify the time, expense, and labor of his hard-won education in the field.  He will wish, in other words, to show off.   And a complex work will provide just the venue for him to demonstrate to the world that   a) as an initiate to the sublime, he recognizes complexity, and in fact,   b) he probably understands the work better than the artist, himself, being schooled as he (the critic) is in psychology and technique.

Another side-effect of having only critics attired in the robes of the appropriate curriculum vitae qualifying them to do criticism is that they will not wish to look the fool.  I mean, few of us really enjoy playing the fool, but if you’re a critic displaying your hard-won knowledge, looking the fool sort of defeats the whole purpose of showing-off.

The erudite critic, knowing his own kind very well (many of whom seem to have no problem making others look the fool), will naturally wish to insulate himself from being attacked for his pronouncements.  For this reason, he will shore up his opinions with what facts he can muster.

Now, we’re talkin’ Art here.  So hard facts are hard to come by– art being a notoriously subjective field.  Nevertheless, there is usable data available for buttressing one’s arguments in the artworld, and it can take different forms…

Sometimes, a critic will take cover beneath vague terms which are hard to contradict.  Critics taking this path may discuss such qualities (and they are “qualities,” not “quantities”) as “elegance” or “balance” or “clarity.”  Or he may use descriptors from far afield, describing a painting with terms from, say, the musical world (“harmonious!”… “jazzy!”).  Or he may describe a musical piece with terms from the culinary world (“delicious!”… “saccharine!”).  Or, maybe the work under the microscope has “personality” or “genuineness,” or it is “playful” or “haunting.”  None of these things can be measured with thermometers or Geiger counters or scales or anything else really.  They are nice, relatively safe, largely defensible opinions.

On the other hand, a critic attempting to be less subjective may go in search of metrical support for his opinion.  Perhaps he will cite the number of occasions upon which the artist in question used new, unusual, or complicated “phraseology” (some combination of sounds, colors, words… the type of phraseology depends on the type of art made).  Or, reciting a chain of historical precedents, show us in a fashion quite supportable that the artwork continues carrying the torch for a certain style– or else how it breaks with past and does something completely new.

Or a critic can show us his knowledge by explaining the layers of manipulation the artist has utilized in making his work– or his lack of layers (or “textures” or “complexity” or some similar term).

Perhaps a well-schooled critic — who usually has taken a psychology course or two– will assign political,  economic, social, or philosophical subtexts to a work– it being irrelevant, of course, if this is how the author intended the work to be experienced.  If critic-assigned symbolic values are taken seriously enough by enough people, these purported symbols become absorbed into work itself, thus changing people’s perception of the work—and THUS making the critic a sort of collaborator in the artwork, itself.  In this way, the critic can become what he always wanted to be in the first place– an Arteest, a creative collaborator working shoulder to shoulder with the originator of the work.

Lastly, keep in mind that the well-educated critic can be found wherever creativity occurs…. from wine-judge to movie-critic to submissions editor.

As far as the great Saint-Saens… he had the misfortune, historically speaking, of producing some of the best musical works ever composed… at a time when the most highly praised composers were garnering attention for BREAKING all the rules of nice melody.  I’ve got no axe to grind when it comes to Debussy or Stravinsky– but their bold, youthful moves in the musical world made Saint-Saens appear relatively old and staid.  Hell, old man Saint-Saens was still writing “concertos” and “sonatas” (and probably secretly craved to write “fugues!”).

As with all the “modern art” which emerged from the 1860s until– (when?… the 1980s… til now even?)– publicity and critical attention could be garnered by a decent artist just for being different– or even better– SHOCKING!

This scenario (surprise, surprise) also benefits the Critic.  He can present himself as the guru whose interpretation we lay persons stand in need of so that we may use the material world to visit the spiritual world.  The critic becomes the high priest who can usher us into the holy of holies where we can experience the sublime.  Under this theory of the Art Of The Critic, the critic will naturally enough disdain simplistic works for which his comments, even for the simple-minded audience, may approach the superfluous.  Instead, he will be drawn irresistibly forward by the magnetism of the complex.  Only a complicated or obtuse work will prove interpretatively pliable enough for the critic to spread its legs and insert himself into the creative act, itself.

Saint-Saens, disparaged by critics of his day for being too accessible, attempted to listen to some the works being birthed by the vaunted composers of his day.  However, according to classical music expert Philip Borg-Wheeler, Saint-Saens (who clearly didn’t “get it”) declared that “modern” works tend to “run in all directions like poisoned rats.”  Saint-Saens believed, in his quaint old-fashioned way, that art should be… beautiful.

Of those “old-fashioned” concertos of Saint-Saens, my favorite is the Piano Concerto Number Two (which sustains my interest throughout), but I find something to like in all five of the concertos.  My least favorite is probably Number Four, although Borg-Wheeler declares that “it ranks among Saint-Saens’ finest and most original works.”  Oh well.  There’s no accounting for taste.

The work was written in 1868 (which by the way reminds me that when I write my five piano concertos– which of course I will– I do not intend to number them consecutively– way too bourgeois).  Borg-Wheeler tells us that some of the music for this piece was actually written by Faure and given to Saint-Saens.

Saint-Saens is probably most famous for his “Danse Macabre,” which is one of my favorites of his, too.  After this, his best known work may be the much longer, “Le Carnaval Des Animau“– which has different parts corresponding to different animals in the carnival.  I have a love-hate relationship with Carnival… finding some of it very enjoyable and other parts just plain silly and annoying.  Luckily, most CDs break-up the work into many different tracks one may listen to or skip

It has proved more trouble than it is worth to set-up a playlist for you of specific Saint-Saens tunes, so I’ll just list my favorites below…

allegro appassionato for piano and orchestra (opus 70)

cello concerto no 2 in d-minor(opus 119)- allegro non troppo cadenza molto allegre

danse macabre in g minor (opus 40)


le carnaval des animaux:  (introduction;  finale;  hemiones animaux veloces;  marche royal du lion;  le cygne;  l’elephant;  pianistes;  poules et coqs;  tortues)


piano concerto no 1 in d major (opus 17)– allegro con fuoco

piano concerto no 2 in g minor (opus 22):  most of it

piano concerto no 3 in e flat major (opus 29):  (allegro non troppo;  moderato assai piu mosso allegro)

piano concerto no 4 in in c minor — allegro vivace andante allegro

piano concerto no 5 in f major (opus 103): (andante allegretto tranquillo quasi…;  molto allegro)

symphony no 3 in c minor (opus 78):  (organ presto;   organ allegro moderato presto allegro moderato)

violin concerto no 3 in b minor– allegro non troppo


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