The Canary Islands in the work of the genius Camille Saint-Saëns



The relationship that the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (Paris, 1835 - Algiers, 1921) maintained with the Canary Islands is an indissoluble part of his brilliant biography since his interest in the Islands was always intense and fruitful and his visits to the Archipelago would mark an important part of his artistic production as an inspiration. In addition, his trips to the Islands lasted for 20 years, between 1889 and 1909 consecutively, a period that coincides with his best creative period.

During those years, the author of such famous works as Les marins de Kermox, Samson and Dalila or Brunehilda, visited the Islands on seven occasions and created works dedicated to the Archipelago of undeniable quality and originality. Next Thursday, December 16, will be celebrates the centenary of the death of the musician and, for this reason, a series of concerts and tributes to his figure are being held in the capital of Gran Canaria. One of them will take place precisely today, at 10.30 am, in the Literary Cabinet where some of those works that Saint-Saëns composed for the Canary Islands will be performed. The next one, more focused on his relationship with other composers of the Archipelago, will be next Sunday, at 12.00, in this same space.

Saint-Saëns's work is elegant and precise in detail because it combines the lyrical style of 19th century French music with a higher formal quality. It is a precursor of musical neoclassicism, with music although apparently simple, also more elaborate, but with a virtuosic writing in all areas. His works include symphonic works of the quality of La distaca de Onfalia (1871), Phaéton (1873), Danza macabra (1874) and La jeunesse d'Hercule (1877), and of his concerts we must mention the second, third and fourth for piano, in G minor (1868), E flat major (1869) and C minor (1875), with an essential virtuosity for the solo instrument. However, his best work is undoubtedly Sansón y Dalila, (1877), as much for its vigorous stage and theatrical approach as for the strength of the choirs and the descriptive breadth of the environment it recreates. It will be precisely from here on when Saint-Saëns performs such important and acclaimed works as Henri VIII (1883), Ascanio (1890), Déjanire (1898), the two Violin Concertos in C major and B minor (1879 and 1880 ), the Symphony in C minor with organ and two pianos (1886), the fifth Piano Concerto (1895), or his zoological fantasy The Carnival of the Animals (1886), perhaps his most popular work.

Caricature of the traveling Saint-Saëns made in 1890 by Giraud Charles. | | LP / DLP Alberto Garcia Saleh


Not forgetting other types of pieces belonging to the most diverse genres such as the lullabies that he composed after the birth of his daughters.

The Gran Canaria violinist Dionisio Rodríguez Suárez is the only Spanish member of the Societé Camille Saint-Saëns of France. And he is the only one who has specialized in the relationship that the composer had with Spain and, more specifically, the Archipelago. Rodríguez is, therefore, a maximum specialist of his figure regarding those vital years of his career. However, despite his artistic achievements, when addressing the biography of the French author, episodes not as friendly as those described above come to light.

"Saint-Saëns had several tragic episodes, between 1887 and 1888, of a family nature, and successive, such as the death of his children, the separation of his wife and the death of his mother," says the expert. In the first place, his unfortunate marriage in 1875 with Marie-Laure Truffot, resulted in two children who died tragically at a young age, which led to his final separation from her. This, coupled with his never hidden homosexuality, did not help him to achieve peace within European society, which applauded him, respected him, admired him and had him as one of the greatest musicians in history.

But the social success did not go hand in hand with the staff: his first son was killed after falling through the window of his home in Paris, and the second malnourished because the mother could not breastfeed him after the disappointment of the death of the first.

To all this must be added, because it coincides in time, the problems that Saint-Saëns had to carry out the premiere of the opera in which he had been working for the Great Universal Exhibition in Paris, and that the entrepreneurs finally postponed. As a consequence, Saint-Saëns went into a horse depression, with suicide attempts. And since the musician wanted to get out of the way, he undertook a trip through Spain in which he did not give his address to the French.

One of the reasons for choosing our country was because the French musician was a man who had very poor lung health since he was a child and who suffered enormous damage from the Parisian winters. His mother and grandmother were widows, and as a young man he had no means to leave the city, he suffered from acute bronchitis. Already, in adulthood, the situation changed, and the composer, before going to the Canary Islands, made two trips to Algeria, which at that time was a French colony. But the atmosphere of the African country did not convince him and he tried again with southern Spain. The winters of Andalusia were not what he was looking for, although this change helped him to hear about the Canary Islands.

In December 1889 the musician made a third search for that paradise and the Islands finally became the miraculous remedy he needed. He was enchanted not only by the weather, but by the cultural environment that then existed in the Canary Islands.

Canaries in the work of genius Alberto Garcia Saleh


Precisely, Dionisio Rodríguez will publish next spring the book La fuga de Saint-Saens, 1889-1890, which tells, from the Spanish point of view, the entire episode of the first time he came to the Islands. This book will include things related to the centenary of his death with a section that includes the Saint-Saëns collections just before coming to the Islands, all his personal belongings, furniture, documents, scores, decorations, and items related to the Canary Islands. and Spain.

“I found the diploma of the Literary Cabinet as an honorary member of Saint-Saëns. He treasured around fifty letters, postcards or large photographs from Gran Canaria and Tenerife, from all the sites he visited in Telde, Teror, La Orotava, Icod, Las Laguna, Santa Cruz or Las Palmas, and which are about to be published . The best has been to find, among a thousand of his letters, in the Dieppe media library, letters from the most illustrious Canaries of the time, such as Dr. Chil Naranjo, Manolo Millares, Father Cueto, musicians such as Bernardino Valle or Santiago Tejera, Candelaria Navarro , who are among those who developed some of his works, "he clarifies.

The expert recalls an impressive episode of the composer as a result of his relationship with Jean Ladeveze, who was vice-consul of France in Las Palmas and who ran a shop on Malteses street and owned a farm on the Gáldar volcano dedicated to cochineal. "There Saint-Saëns was extraordinarily well and there he was retired from Las Palmas from 1897 to 1898 and some years later, since the knowledge he had of the city, and the many requests he had for concerts, overwhelmed him."

In the end, the composer makes seven visits that last more than three or four months in which he has a great productive activity in all orders. "One of his most striking friends is a forgotten character in Canarian culture, named Aquilino García Barba," says Rodríguez. "He and his son, together with Saint-Saëns, formed the first astronomical group in the Canary Islands under the Societé Astronomique de France".

It was a group of seven people who, from Las Palmas, were sending information to the neighboring country's bulletin that was published at the time. "The astronomical group was established in 1887 and it was the beginning of organized astronomy at the level of Spain," he adds below.

Excursion to Mount Lentiscal with the Philharmonic Society in 1897. De L. Ojeda. | | LP / DLP Alberto Garcia Saleh


But Saint-Saëns was also a very generous man as evidenced by the one who gave a concert to benefit the construction of the San José hospital asylum in the Port, or who earned a lot of money but died practically poor. During his stay in Las Palmas, the composer took walks, went to the Literary Cabinet, and even wrote an article for the Diario de Las Palmas on June 10, 1899, on the occasion of the inauguration of the electric lighting of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, where he made an intelligent argument about progress.

After leaving for France the following year, the musician sent the scores of his works Vals Canariote and Campanas de Las Palmas to the Islands. And in return, the director of the Las Palmas Music Band composed the pasodoble Saint-Saëns for him. Shortly after, the French musician gave him back another called Canarian Grenadier.

«He was a man who was born in 1835 and died in 1921. He had a very long journey. He went through the nineteenth century and his famous contemporaries such as Tchaikovski, Verdi and Schumann were dying before him ”, says the expert. «He reached the 20th century where there were already other currents with composers like Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and even nationalists like Falla. And he continued his course ».

Regarding his artistic production, «I would highlight his chamber music, which is of incredible quality and is unjustly forgotten. From his quintets composed when he was only fifteen years old, to those he did in Las Palmas. And also his concerts as the number 3 of violin ».

Rodríguez emphasizes that "we have reconstituted those scores composed for the Canary Islands so that they can now play them more precisely," he adds.

Even so, the main works of the French musician, taking into account that he has hundreds of compositions, are the best known: Sanson and Delilah and The Carnival of the Animals. To which Rodríguez would add The concert nº 1 for cello, The violin concertos 1 and 3, dedicated to Pablo de Sarasate, in addition to the Introduction and capricious rondo. «But I would recommend looking back at his wonderful Cello Concerto premiered in Spain by Pablo Casals, who knew him as a young man. Also some chamber work he did with Granados, to which Saint Saëns had a great affection, since much of his music is written for four hands ». His relationship with Spain is also materialized in the fact that Saint-Saëns wrote an Aragonese jota, an Andalusian caprice, or a Canarian waltz, apart from the Spanish character that permeates several of his works because “the orientalist French discourse includes Spain in that oriental world by that Arab past, "he adds.

During the last years of his life Saint-Saëns became increasingly interested in Arabic popular music. Caressed by honor and fame, he almost suddenly ended his days in Algiers, where he had wintered for some years now, shortly after the First World War, when he was among the most ardent of nationalists.

Tribute in the Cabinet

The activities on the occasion of the centenary of Camille Saint-Saëns have two unavoidable appointments in the Literary Cabinet. The first will take place today Sunday, at 10.30 am, where a singing and piano duo formed by Carolina Sosa and Sergio Alonso will perform their songs composed in Las Palmas and Pauline Viardot-García, a great friend of the composer. The second will be on the 19th, at 12.00, where a string quintet will perform works by him, and by Turina, Granados or Valle. Also as a tribute, on December 5, the String Quintet of Gran Canaria with the Gran Canaria pianist Victor Naranjo, performed in the Auditorium with pieces by him, works by Bernardino Valle dedicated to him and where they included a version of one of the ballets by the opera Ascanio. | AGS

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