On the Execution of Music, Camille Saint-Saëns
On the Execution of Music
Camille Saint-Saëns
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Saint-Saëns was a musical prodigy; he made his concert debut at the age of ten. After studying at the Paris Conservatoire he followed a conventional career as a church organist, first at Saint-Merri, Paris and, from 1858, La Madeleine, the official church of the French Empire. After leaving the post twenty years later, he was a successful freelance pianist and composer, in demand in Europe and the Americas.

On the Execution Of
Music, and Principally
Of Ancient Music

by
Camille Saint-Saëns


MUSIC was written in a scrawl impossible to decipher up to the thirteenth century, when Plain Song (Plain Chant) made its appearance in square and diamond-shaped notes. The graduals and introits had not yet been reduced to bars, but the songs of the troubadours appear to have been in bars of three beats with the accent on the feeble note of each bar. However, the theory that this bar of three beats or triple time was used exclusively is probably erroneous. St. Isidore, in his treatise on music, speaking of how Plain Song should be interpreted, considers in turn all the voices and recommends those which are high, sweet and clear, for the execution of vocal sounds, introits, graduals, offertories, etc. This is exactly contrary to what we now do, since in place of utilizing these light tenor voices for Plain Song, we have recourse to voices both heavy and low.

In the last century when it was desired to restore Plain Song to its primitive purity, one met with insurmountable obstacles due to its prodigious prolixity of long series of notes, repeating indefinitely the same musical forms; but in considering this in the light of explanations given by St. Isidore, and in view of the Oriental origin of the Christian religion, we are led to infer that these long series of notes were chants or vocalizations analogous to the songs of the Muezzins of the Orient. At the beginning of the sixteenth century musical laws began to be elaborated without, however, in this evolution towards modern tonal art, departing entirely from all influence of the antique methods. The school named after Palestrina employed as yet only the triads or perfect chords; this prevented absolutely all expression, although some traces of it appear in the “Stabat Mater” of that composer. This music, ecclesiastical in character, in which it would have been chimerical to try to introduce modern expression, flourished in France, in Flanders, in Spain at the same time as in Italy, and enjoyed the favor of Pope Marcellus, who recognized the merit of Palestrina in breaking loose from the grievous practice of adapting popular songs to church music.

In the middle ages, as in antiquity, the laws of harmony were unknown; when it was desired to sing in two parts, they sang at first in intervals of fifths and fourths, where it would have seemed much more natural to sing in thirds and sixths. Such first attempts at music in several parts were made in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when they were hunting for laws, and such music was discordant. It bore the name of Diaphony. The real Polyphony came in the sixteenth century with the school of Palestrina.

Later on, little by little, laws were established, not arbitrarily, but laws resulting from a long experience, and during all the sixteenth century admirable music was written, though deprived of melody, properly speaking. Melody was reserved for dance music which, in fact, was perfectly written in four and even in five part scores, as I have been able to convince myself in hunting for dance music of the sixteenth century for my opera “Ascanio.”

But no indication of movement, nuances or shading, enlightens us as to the manner in which this music should be interpreted. At Paris the first attempts to execute the music of Palestrina were made in the time of Louis Philippe, by the Prince of Moscow. He had founded a choral society of amateurs, all titled, but gifted with good voices and a certain musical talent. This society executed many of the works of Palestrina and particularly the famous “Mass of Pope Marcellus.” They adopted at that time the method of singing most of these pieces very softly and with an extreme slowness so that in the long-sustained notes the singers were forced to divide their task by some taking up the sound when the others were out of breath. Consonant chords thus presented evidently produced music which was very agreeable to the ear, but unquestionably the author could not recognize his work in such rendering. Quite different was the method of the singers in the Sistine Chapel when I heard them for the first time in Rome in 1855 when they sung the “Sicut Cervus” of Palestrina. They roared in a head-splitting way without the least regard for the pleasure of the listener, or for the meaning of the words they sang. It is difficult to believe that this music was ever composed to be executed in such a barbarous manner, which, it seems to me, differs completely from our musical conceptions; and it is a great mistake also in modern editions of such music to introduce delicate shadings or nuances and even employ the words “very expressive.”

Palestrina has had his admirers among French literary writers. We recall the scene created by Octave Feuillet in “M. de Camors.” M. de Camors is at his window; a lady is at the piano; a gentleman at the cello, and another lady sings the Mass of Palestrina which I have referred to above. Such a way of playing this music is simply out of the question. Feuillet had obtained his inspiration for this from a fanciful painting which he had seen somewhere.

Expression was introduced into music by the chord of the dominant seventh, the invention of which is attributed to Monteverde. However, Palestrina had already employed that chord in his “Adoremus,” but probably without understanding its importance or divining its future.

Before this invention the interval of three whole tones (Triton) was considered an intolerable dissonance and was called “the devil in music.” The dominant seventh has been the open door to all dissonances and to the domain of expression. It was a death blow to that learned music of the sixteenth century; it was the arrival of the reign of melody — of the development of the art of singing. Very often the song or the solo instrument would be accompanied by a simple, ciphered bass, the ciphers indicating the chords which he who accompanied should play as well as he could, either on the harpsichord or the theorbe. The theorbe was an admirable instrument which is now to be found only in museums, — a sort of enormous guitar with a long neck and multiple strings which offered great opportunities to a skilful artist.

It is curious to note that in ancient times there was not attributed to the minor and major keys the same character as is assigned them to-day. The joyous canticle of the Catholic church, “O Filii et Filiæ,” is in the minor. “The Romanesca,” a dance air of the sixteenth century, is equally in the minor, just like all the dance airs of Lully, and of Rameau, and the gavottes of Sebastian Bach. The celebrated “Funeral March” of Haendel, reproduced in many of his works, is in C Major. The delicious love duo of Acis and Galathee, which changes to a trio by the addition of the part of Polyphemus, is in A Minor. When Galathee weeps afterward over the death of Acis, the air is in F Major. It is only recently that we find dance airs in the major mood or key.

From the seventeenth century on, music entered into everyday life, never again to be separated from it. Thus music has remained in favor, and we are continually hearing executed the works of Bach, of Haendel, of Hayden, of Mozart and of Beethoven. How are such works executed? Are they executed as they should be? That is another question.

One source of error is found in the evolution which musical instruments have undergone. In the time of Bach and Haendel the bow truly merited its Italian name of “arco.” It was curved like an arc — the hairs of the bow constituted the chord of the arc, a very great flexibility resulting which allowed the strings of the instrument to be enveloped and to be played simultaneously. The bow seldom quitted the strings, doing so only in rare cases and when especially indicated. On this account it happens that the indication of “legato” is very rare. Even though there was a separate stroke of the bow for each note, the notes were not separated one from the other. Nowadays the form of the bow is completely changed. The execution of the music is based upon the detached bow, and although it is easy to keep the bow upon the strings just as they did at the commencement of the nineteenth century, performers have lost the habit of it. The result is that they give to ancient music a character of perpetually jumping, which completely destroys its nature.

The very opposite movement has been produced in instruments of the key or piano type. The precise indications of Mozart show that “non-legato,” which doesn’t mean at all “staccato,” was the ordinary way of playing the instrument, and that the veritable “legato” was played only where the author specially indicated it. The clavecin or harpsichord, which preceded the piano, when complete with two banks of keys, many registers giving the octaves and different tone qualities, oftentimes like the organ with a key for pedals, offered resources which the piano does not possess. A Polish lady, Madame Landowska, has studied thoroughly these resources, and has shown us how pieces written for this instrument thus disclosed elements of variety which are totally missing when the same are played upon the piano; but the clavecin tone lacked fulness, and shadings or nuances were out of the question.

Sonority or tone was varied by changing the keys or register just as on the organ. On the other hand, with the piano one can vary the sonority by augmenting or diminishing the force of the attack, hence its original name of “forte piano,” — a name too long, which was shortened at first by suppressing the last syllables; so that one reads, not without astonishment, in the accounts given of young Mozart, of the skill he showed in playing “forte” at a time when he was playing on instruments of a very feeble tone. Nowadays when athletic artists exert all their force upon the modern instruments of terrific sonority, they are said to play the “piano” (toucher du piano).

We must conclude that the indication “non-legato” finally degenerated into meaning “staccato.” In my youth I heard persons advanced in age whose performance on the piano was extremely dry and jumpy. Then a reaction took place. The tyrannical reign of the perpetual “legato” succeeded. It was decided that in piano playing unless indicated to the contrary, and even at times in spite of such indication, everything everywhere should be tied together. This was a great misfortune of which Kalkbrenner gives a manifest proof in the arrangement he has made of Beethoven’s symphonies. Besides, this “legato” tyranny continues. Notwithstanding the example of Liszt, the greatest pianist of the nineteenth century, and notwithstanding his numerous pupils, the fatal school of the “legato” has prevailed, — not that it is unfortunate in itself, but because it has perverted the intentions of musical authors. Our French professors have followed the example of Kalkbrenner.

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