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Songs of Nature and Farewell

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Soprano, flute, cello, piano

Duration (approx)   16 minutes
Composed   2011
Text Author(s)   Camille Saint-Saëns
Text Language   French
Publisher   Music Haven

Wigmore Hall, with the support of André Hoffmann, President of the Foundation.

First performance   3rd November 2011
Venue   Wigmore Hall, London
Soloists / Players   Rachel Nicholls (soprano), Emily Beynon (flute), Steven Isserlis (cello), Connie Shih (piano)

1. Le Chêne 2. La Libellule 3. Adieu

Programme Notes

Saint-Saëns' range of interests and achievements was so remarkably extensive that I was not at all surprised to hear from Steven Isserlis that the composer had published a volume of poetry - his 'Rimes Familières' - in 1890. Steven then suggested that I might set some of these poems for the same forces as Ravel's Chansons Madécasses and I didn't need to be persuaded. I liked these poems very much and felt a desire to draw attention to yet another aspect of Saint-Saëns' fertile imagination and personality.

Le Chêne (The Oak Tree) is an airy and good-natured 'letter' to an old friend, Edmond Cottinet, with whom the composer had collaborated on various stage works. The oak tree is, perhaps, a symbol of growth and the perils that beset the path of all creative endeavours. In homage to Saint-Saêns' own predilection for pastiche this song fuses the forms of minuet and bourée in a carefree, neo-classical manner.

La Libellule (The Dragonfly) is rather darker in tone. The insect in flight, whilst beguiling and superficially charming, is presented as a predator with a more sinister purpose. This is a classic symbol of the femme fatale and casts an interesting light on the speculations surrounding Saint-Saêns' own relationships with women.

The sentiments of the final poem 'Adieu' (Farewell) are also very much in keeping with the preoccupations of French poetry at that time - the desire to escape from worldly concerns and enter a paradise of contemplation and calm. The song opens with a cello solo in a somewhat despondent mood which is dispelled by the prospect of a steam-ship, slumbering in a bay, ready to carry the composer away.

The central section is a dream-like evocation of an island paradise. Here the imagery called to mind Gauguin's Tahiti paintings with those voluptuous forms and an almost ominous sense of the power of nature. Towards the end of this section, Saint-Saêns addresses another old friend and collaborator, Louis Gallet (the poem's dedicatee) and appears to renounce his entire career, handing over the trials and tribulations, somewhat archly, for Gallet to 'enjoy at leisure'.

Finally, with a sense of joyful release the ship sets sail and Saint-Saêns finds a charming metaphor for the impossible dream - flying fish! Here, the flute, released from its lower octave, relishes the sea-spray and fresh air of freedom before the ship meets the horizon in a quiet reminiscence of the central, island music.

These songs are dedicated to the memory of Pauline Mara-Isserlis. A flautist herself, I could not help but identify the flute in these songs with my affectionate memory of her.

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Three Poems by Camille Saint-Saëns. Commissioned by Wigmore Hall, with the support of André Hoffmann, President of the Fondation.

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