Newly-discovered choral motet by Camille Saint-Saëns
Fittingly coinciding with the commemorative year in 2021 to mark the 100th anniversary of Camille Saint-Saëns’ death, a rediscovered choral work by the composer will be published for the very first time. “Super flumina Babylonis” will then be available in three versions.
It is thanks to Yves Gérard that a musical treasure was unearthed in the Médiathèque Jean Renoir in Dieppe in France: during his many years of research, he came across an unknown and unpublished manuscript penned by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921).
The score is wrapped in thin, reddish-brown paper, scuffed at the edges and has its title “Super Flumina Babylonis” carelessly written in pencil. “Psaume 136” seems to have been added later in ink. Not a treasure at first glance – but at the second, third, fourth, for it is the top four instrumental parts which make this manuscript something of a sensation. Placed under each other are “Saxophone Soprano en Si b”, “Saxophone Alto en Mi b”, “Saxophone Ténor en Si b” and “Saxophone Baryton en Mi b”, strings, soprano solo with chorus and organ.
Musical history has hitherto credited Jean-Baptiste Singelée (1812–1875) with having written the first saxophone quartet, his opus 53, which he completed in 1857. This historiography clearly has to be revised now, for under the first page of the Dieppe treasure, which is pasted over and also even stitched, the date 1854 is to be found. Saint-Saëns’ work was thus written three years earlier than that of Singelée’s.
In contrast to Singelée, Saint-Saëns does not have the wind instruments taking solo parts but rather uses their tonal colour to depict textual moods and nuances. Stylistically, the entry of the at that time brand-new instruments calls to mind more the entry of clarinets or other woodwind instruments – very much like the sound of the historical saxophone. On the one hand the saxophones accompany the choral parts (certainly singable by amateurs) and support the human voices in fugal passages. On the other hand they take the melody in the purely orchestral passages. Not once are the saxophones’ technical capabilities put on display during the some 12 minutes that the work lasts, their tonal qualities being rather integrated into the lamentation and wrath of Psalm 136.
Saint-Saëns wrote the motet in the period when he had taken up his first permanent appointment as organist at the Church of Saint-Merri in Paris, next to which now stand the Stravinsky Fountain, the IRCAM building and the Centre Pompidou. He composed numerous church-music works during his nearly five-year tenure, including the Mass op. 4. Little is known about his time at Saint-Merri. Some of the works which he composed there were neither printed nor kept in the church archives; they “vanished” in his private collection or were given away. A large proportion of his possessions found their way to Dieppe after his death, one of them being this motet too, suggesting that it must been of special significance for the composer.
Saint-Saëns revised the work over a period of several decades on numerous occasions, changing the motifs at the beginning, correcting obvious mistakes, reworking the ending, eventually changing the instrumentation several times too and even – probably in the final stage – replacing the Latin text with an English one. Today, we have thus been handed down three-and-a-half versions, one of them stopping after just a few pages.
Solving all the mysteries which have grown up around these versions has so far proved to be elusive. What remains puzzling, for example, are Saint-Saëns’ motives for setting Psalm 136 for these instruments. Detailed detective work has in the meantime enabled the compositional steps to be reconstructed, however. Furthermore, the first saxophone version (BA 11305) and the last English piano version (BA 11309) have been edited to produce a scholarly-critical edition. The editions are being published by Bärenreiter-Verlag and will be on sale in the 2021 Saint-Saëns Year; they are already available beforehand for hire. Additionally, the large-scale orchestral version (AOE 10642) will be available for hire from September.
Only a few performances are known to have taken place during Saint-Saëns’ lifetime, but the audiences of the time do not appear to have responded to them with any particular enthusiasm. Quite the reverse today though, with the international saxophone community waiting with avid anticipation for the editions to come out and for the first performances. The premiere as part of a workshop concert at TU Dortmund University, which saw performances of all four versions, made it abundantly clear that this anticipation is justified. And that what we have is truly a musical treasure.
Christina M. Stahl
(translation: Stephan Taylor)