«Saint-Saëns found in the Canary Islands the conducive peace for composition»

Stephane Leteure. / C7

The specialist in the figure of the French composer participates in the catalog of the exhibition on Saint-Saëns, which is presented this Wednesday at the Casa de Colón

Victoriano Suarez Alamo

Edited by the Vice Ministry of Culture of the Government of the Canary Islands, through the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage and the Institute for Cultural Development, the catalog of the exhibition curated by Dionisio Rodríguez is presented on the morning of
this Wednesday, at Casa de Colón, at 12:00 noon. Stéphane Leteuré (1971) is Associate Professor of History-Geography and PhD in Musicology. He is a Research Associate at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. His work focuses on the political dimension of the work and action of Camille Saint-Saëns between 1870 and 1921. Since then, he has devoted himself to the study of the links between the composer and his time through themes of political history, history culture, history of science and iconographic representations. Stéphane Leteuré is the author of three books on Saint-Saëns. In the last two articles in this newspaper on the French composer by Dionisio Rodríguez, he appears as a documentary collaborator.

-How do you assess the different stays of Camille Saint-Saëns in Gran Canaria, both personally and creatively in the life of this composer?

-After Algeria and Egypt, the Canary Islands were the non-European territory (geographically speaking) most visited by Camille Saint-Saëns. He frequented the archipelago from 1889 to 1909 and made it one of his favorite destinations. The composer liked to find the propitious tranquility for the composition. About thirty works were partially or totally composed in the Canary Islands, which makes this place a land of inspiration for the musician.

- Has the investigative process carried out by Dionisio Rodríguez and in which you have occasionally collaborated uncovered circumstances of Saint-Saëns' passage through the island that were not known until now?

-The recent investigations carried out in relation to Dionisio Rodríguez have brought to light all the sociability that surrounded Saint-Saëns in the Canary Islands, that is, the entire social context that surrounded the musician on the island, including his private life. The chronology of Saint-Saëns's voyages has been accurately and effectively revised. Some sources have particularly highlighted the circumstances of Saint-Saëns' hasty return to France in 1898 in the geopolitical context of the war between Spain and the United States. An eighth visit in July 1904, although reduced to one scale, has been added to the list already known to specialists.

-What did you think of the Casa de Colón exhibition and what issues do you address in the text that appears in the catalogue?

-I have not yet had the opportunity to visit the exhibition at the Casa de Colón. What I have seen of it from the presentation on YouTube shows great care in the exposure of the sources and in the crossing of those of the European continent with those of the Canary Islands. I'm looking forward to seeing it 'in situ'. In my text for the catalogue, I examined Saint-Saëns's reasons for visiting the Canaries, while recomposing his place among the master's many trips to Europe and beyond, from 1852 until his death in 1921. I have analyzed many sources, most of them in print, to assess the musician's motives for spending so much time on the "islands of health." I have taken advantage of this article to recall Saint-Saëns's interest in the life sciences, starting from his observation of a colony of ants that had even nibbled his cookies, even in the closet of his hotel room! he! As often happens with Saint-Saëns, his scientific impressions, in this case ethological, gave rise to articles in the French press.

-What aspects of the extensive production of Camille Saint-Saëns in all genres in Gran Canaria stand out?

-I note, from the vast production of Saint-Saëns in relation to the Canary Islands, that he was able to find here the propitious peace for composition. A distinction must be made between works composed (partially or totally) 'in situ', without any real link to the local identity and environment, and those that are totally inspired by them. I especially remember the motif of the bells of the Las Palmas cathedral, which inspired a beautiful piece for piano, 'Las campanas de Las Palmas', the 4th of the 'Six studies for piano' (opus 111) composed in 1899. This page , which some would describe as "pre-Debussian" or "impressionist", today enjoys the favor of great pianists who record it on disc, such as Bertrand Chamayou. For my part, I see something very touching in this. I can't wait to hear that bell ringing, whose poetic potential was perceived by the ears of Saint-Saëns 134 years ago. I prefer this work to the 'Valse canariote', more in keeping with the mundane demands that the composer had to satisfy during his visits. 'Les Cloches de Las Palmas' seems to me to be a moving sound postcard that I bring back as a memory and that I hope, in my modest way, to take with me.

-Do you think that the definition that best fits Camille Saint-Saëns is that of a Renaissance man, due to his knowledge in different disciplines, including astronomy?

-Saint-Saëns was an 'honest man' of his time, which equates him to a Renaissance intellectual. But his encyclopedic culture, musical or not, assimilates him above all to a man of the eighteenth century. His atheism, his broad culture, his rationalism and his taste for modernity make him an heir to the Enlightenment. However, let us not forget that Saint-Saëns was above all a man of his time. The 19th century liked more than ever to advance knowledge in the name of science: for example, Saint-Saëns embraced the theory of evolution and plunged into numerous scientific questions typical of the intellectual frenzy of the second half of the 19th century and early of the XX. Saint-Saëns believed in progress even though he stressed its drawbacks. This taste for modernity and things of his time also led him to look at the past, particularly the musical past, which he liked to explore as a musical archaeologist. Isn't the 19th century dubbed by historians "the century of History"?

-What are the activities of the Societé Camille Saint-Saëns in Paris, of which you are a part?

-The Camille Saint-Saëns Society helps to rediscover the importance of Saint-Saëns. Its objective is to bring together the community of researchers and music lovers around a publication ('Cahiers Saint-Saëns') in which rare or even previously unpublished texts are published. The society allows the publication of research articles that testify to the need to rediscover the 'illustrious unknown' that is Saint-Saëns and to whom the 20th century has turned its back. This rehabilitation not only intends to pay homage to the author of 'Carnival of the Animals', but above all to improve our musical, biographical and historical knowledge of the composer. Everything remains to be done about him. Building on the works of Yves Gérard, Sabina Teller-Ratner, Michael Stegemann and Marie-Gabrielle Soret, we are reassessing Saint-Saëns' place in French and world music history. The Societé Camille Saint-Saëns has the ambition to support the rediscovery of Saint-Saëns by those who renew the investigation.

-Do you think that the composer's stays in Gran Canaria were important enough to open up a fixed space on the island to value his figure?

-Both Saint-Saëns and the Canary Islands deserve a special place in Gran Canaria, of which he was the 'adopted son'. The statue that pays tribute to him shows that the memory of the composer remains and that it is anchored in the public space, in full view, in the open air. I think it would be prudent to allow Saint-Saëns to have an interior this time, to let him enter a place of memory linked to music, capable of keeping his memory alive and perhaps of playing a few notes of his music... .