A century ago, on December 16, 1921, a multifaceted musician, the undisputed protagonist of the second Romanticism in France, and a virtuoso pianist, organist and skilled improviser, prolific composer and eloquent music critic, died in Algiers (Algeria): Camille Saint-Saëns.
He was born 86 years earlier, on October 9, 1835, in Paris. A child prodigy, after studying piano and composition at the Paris Conservatory, he became organist at the churches of Saint-Merry Church (1853-1857) and then at La Madeleine (1857-1877) and expanded his fame by giving concerts in many countries. Composer in all genres; in his catalog of over 200 works we find: 15 operas, including the masterpiece Samson et Dalila (1877); 3 symphonies, of which we recall the No. 3 in C minor with organ, Op. 78; 5 piano concertos, 3 violin concertos; 2 cello concertos, including the successful fortunato Concerto in A minor (1879); 4 symphonic poems, among which is the famous Danse macabre (1875); lots of chamber music, including the “zoological fantasy” entitled Carnaval des animaux (1886); without forgetting religious and also sacred music.
Music critic for several Parisian periodicals, he was austere, polemical and rooted in tradition, despite the musical revolutions he had personally seen of Wagner, Liszt, of the devoted piano pupil Fauré, of Debussy, Schönberg and Stravinski.
And it’s precisely one of his articles concerning the famous St. Pius X’s Motu proprio on sacred music, Tra le sollecitudini, to hold our attention. In this writing entitled “La réforme de la musique religieuse,” which appeared in the French newspaper Le Figaro on May 7, 1904, the Parisian maestro is first of all profoundly grateful toward His Holiness Pius X for the interest he shows so conspicuously in religious music. However, he wants to know whether the Pope “has always found sufficient light which could advise him and whether, wanting to eradicate the weeds, he has not exposed himself to destroying even a part of the good wheat.”
Saint-Saëns responds to this serious question with a reasoning that leaves us very perplexed. In fact, Gregorian chant “is now a dead language,” of which “after so many centuries, we have lost the key,” he argues. “An interminable series of notes, tiresome repetitions made the most courageous singers recoil. Imagine passages like this: la do la do la do — la do la do — la do la do la do la do, and so on for whole pages.” What an exaggeration in those repetitions! Only someone inexperienced in Gregorian chant can speak like this.
Nor is polyphony spared, which, according to him, “is really not so much a dead language as a sick language, whose traditions have been lost.” And he piles it on, wondering “why is polyphony, devoid of melody, particularly religious in itself?” For example, “Palestrina’s secular madrigals […] differ very little form the religious music of their time; sung with Latin words, they would seem to modern ears examples of the purest religious style.” Does it completely escape the celebrated French composer that it was polyphony that, born, developed and lived in the Church, came out of the churches and was employed for profane use, without losing its inherent religious character? Although an operatic aria such as Ombra mai fu, known as Handel’s Largo, to mention just an example, can be considered sacred today, the distance from its composition generally doesn’t create mystery and, therefore, the mysterious character of the piece is not at the same time a religious character. Or does anyone think that in one or two centuries our musical pieces of poor artistic value and of little commitment, in particular songs and dance tunes, will be taken as sacred, forgetting their origin and primitive purpose? St. Pius X doesn’t flatter himself at all when he recommends that “the musical compositions of modern style which are admitted in the Church may contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and not be fashioned even in their external forms after the manner of profane pieces” (Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini, n. 5). Although it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, everyone can understand the meaning of those papal words.
The Parisian maestro is annoyed that Mozart’s Requiem is proscribed! Are all the masses of the period – those by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven; the works of Jommelli, Porpora and Marcello – to share its fate? But where would such censure be in Pope Sarto’s document? That “legal code of sacred music” presents the general rules for establishing how much a piece of music responds to the character of sacred music and “to the requirements of true liturgical music” (n. 6). Numbers 10 and 11 define well at least the external form (including length) of the sacred compositions. Number 12, then, clarifies the role of solo singing: “it is not to be understood that solos are entirely excluded,” but it “should never predominate to such an extent as to have the greater part of the liturgical chant executed in that manner” (as in a concert), retaining as much as possible “the character of choral music.”
The French musician falls into the last gross misunderstanding when he writes that “the Pope repudiates violins and other profane instruments; he absolutely proscribes the use of noisy instruments, cymbals, trombones, etc. At first sight all this seems very judicious, but it cannot resist a more in-depth examination.” And the four reasons for that examination adduced by our musician are of little importance. Yet numbers 15-21 of the Motu Proprio deal with the organ and instruments, allowed, “but never without the special permission of the Ordinary,” as long as they “participate in all the qualities proper to sacred music.”
Saint-Saëns either didn’t read St. Pius X or if he read it didn’t understand it. Is it possible that he didn’t know the work done by the Benedictine monks of Solesmes, just over 150 miles from Paris, for the rediscovery of the original Gregorian chant? Is it possible that he hadn’t understood not only Pope Sarto’s reform but the very essence of sacred music? With the blunders of the Parisian maestro, there is a further proof of how necessary it is for the good musician, in addition to general and musical education, to have a profoundly Christian soul. In fact, as Domenico Bartolucci (1917-2013), the venerated maestro of your author, used to say, “the singer in church is not an artist; he is a preacher, that is, he preaches while singing.”
Photo: wikipedia commons.
Massimo Scapin, an Italian conductor of both opera and the symphonic repertoire, composer, and pianist, holds degrees in piano and choral conducting from the State Conservatory of Music in Perugia, in orchestral conducting and composition from the National College of Music in London, and in religious science (magna cum laude) from the Pontifical Lateran University. Massimo appeared as guest conductor and pianist in Europe, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, and the United States. He was also a Vatican Radio commentator and entertainer. He currently serves as Director of Liturgical Music at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago.