Camille Saint-Saëns and wind instruments

Camille Saint-Saëns (portrait) (1904) by AnonymousLe Musée des instruments à vent

A productive partnership

An indefatigable advocate of musical life, a virtuoso pianist and organist, an eclectic composer and a formidable polemicist, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), composed around 50 of his total catalogue of some 600 works for wind instruments.

Jean-Baptiste Arban, Grande méthode complète de cornet à pistons et de saxhorns (1864) by Jean-Baptiste ArbanLe Musée des instruments à vent

His long career corresponds to one of the most inventive period in the history of music instruments making. During the  19th century, the search for new sounds by performers and composers led to the refinement and improvement of woodwind and brass instruments.

Workers of the Chapelain workshop (1910) by AnonymousLe Musée des instruments à vent

A lot of these innovations emerged at La Couture-Boussey and its neighbouring villages. Several famous dynasties of instruments makers as Buffet, Godfroy, Julliot, Martin, Noblet or Thibouville produced instruments, first using traditional methods and later on an industrial scale.

The orchestra of the Association Phonique des Grands Artistes (APGA) by AnonymousLe Musée des instruments à vent

In search of new sounds

The modernisation of wind instruments began at the turn of the 18th and the 19th century. A first period of invention (1830-1840), followed by a second period of refinement (start of the 20th century), led to the modern instrumentarium.

Tenor saxophone in B-flat (detail) (1857) by Adolphe SaxLe Musée des instruments à vent

From 1850 on, Saint-Saëns exploited the new instruments available and gave winds a soloist role. Paying attention to the “timbre” (sounds characteristics), he was interested not only in the new instruments (saxophone, sarrusophone, saxhorn) but also in the musical instruments making.

The flute class of Paul Taffanel at the Paris Conservatoire (1895) by Eugène PirouLe Musée des instruments à vent

Despite not having personally worked with the instruments makers of the Couturiot basin, Saint-Saëns was in contact with the musicians who collaborated with them. Some of them, such as the flautist Louis Dorus (1813-1896), fulfilled the roles of performer, maker, and inventor.

Title page of the score of the Tarentelle for flute, clarinet and piano, Op. 6 (ca. 1891-1909) by AnonymousLe Musée des instruments à vent

Renewing the chamber music repertoire

Around 1840, a new generation of performers sparked new interest in chamber music, a form that had been in decline since 1820. The clarinetist Adolphe Leroy (1827–1880), for instance, encouraged new compositions such as Tarentelle Op. 6 (1857) by Saint-Saëns.

Title page of the score of Caprices sur des Airs Danois et Russes, Op. 79 (1887) by L. DenisLe Musée des instruments à vent

The wind repertoire was enriched in 1870 thanks to the involvement of music societies, like that of the flautist Paul Taffanel (1844–1908). Saint-Saëns also contributed to it with the famous Carnaval des animaux (1886) and Caprice sur des airs danois et russes Op. 79 (1887).

The clarinet class of Auguste Périer at the Paris Conservatoire (1930) by Louis RoosenLe Musée des instruments à vent

In spring 1921, Saint-Saëns composed three sonatas for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, each dedicated to a renowned performer: the oboist Louis Bas (1863–1944), the clarinetist Auguste Périer (1883–1947), and the bassoonist Léon Letellier (1859–1943). 

Poster of the City of Dieppe Great National Competition of Choral Societies, Wind and Brass Bands (1888) by Charles DelevoyeLe Musée des instruments à vent

The wind orchestra: “the only true open-air orchestra”

The decades 1840-1860 were a turning point in the history of wind bands (woddwinds and brass). The promotion of Adolphe Sax’s instruments (1814–1894), the professionalization of military bands and the explosion of musical societies gave rise to a vast specialized repertoire.

Representation of Parysatis at the Béziers' Arena (1903) by AnonymousLe Musée des instruments à vent

For Saint-Saëns, the wind orchestra was the "only true open-air orchestra”, which had to match the symphony orchestra outside. With Orient et Occident Op. 25 (1869) and the ambitious Parysatis (1902), he was almost the only person to give them his attention.

the Republican Guard Band (1903-1912) by AnonymousLe Musée des instruments à vent

When creating his works, Saint-Saëns benefited from the assistance of numerous prestigious ensembles such as the Fanfare Sax (Sax Brass Band), the Musique de la Garde Républicaine (Republican Guard Band), and the band of John Philip Sousa.

L'Harmonie l'Industrie de La Couture-Boussey (1875-1888) by AnonymousLe Musée des instruments à vent

A famous orchestra: l’Harmonie de la Couture-Boussey

La Couture-Boussey also owes its musical reputation to its wind orchestra (1848–1980). Composed of 32 musicians and based on the military band model, the orchestra participated in numerous competitions in which Saint-Saëns sat on the jury (Evreux, 1875; Dieppe, 1877).

Banner of the Industrie woodwind band (1902-1910) by AnonymousLe Musée des instruments à vent

Split in two formations between 1897 and 1910 because of tensions with the municipality, the band was finally reunified under the name of “L’Harmonie l’Industrie de La Couture-Boussey (Eure)”. Its members were primarily instrument makers from the Couturiot basin, and the band was one of the foundations of the sociability of the village.

The French horn class of François Brémond at the Paris Conservatoire (1895) by Eugène PirouLe Musée des instruments à vent

Brass works dedicated to the most famous names

Saint-Saëns was not only interested in woodwind instruments. Between 1853 and 1868, he also highlighted brass in a series of four pieces of religious music. Two of which are associated with the horn player and instrument maker Jules-Léon Antoine, known as Halary (1827–1902): Offertoire and Ave verum.

Portrait of Henri Garrigue playing the french horn (1888) by AnonymousLe Musée des instruments à vent

He even became intertwined in the duel between two exceptional makers/musicians, dedicating Romance Op. 36 (1874) to Jean-Henri Garigue, proponent of the chromatic valved horn, and Morceau de concert (1887) to Henri Chaussier (1854–1914), supporter of the natural and the omnitonic horn.

Three-valve F Trumpet (1879-1911) by AnonymousLe Musée des instruments à vent

He brought the trumpet, considered to struggle with intonation, into chamber music. A fan of the deep sound of the three-valved trumpet in F (which will be replaced by the short trumpet in C), he explored its entire range of capabilities in Septuor Op. 65 (1880).

Portrait of George W. Stewart (1915) by Cardinell-Vincent CompanyLe Musée des instruments à vent

Saint-Saëns was also attracted to the trombone. During a trip to the United States (1915), he discovered the tradition of virtuoso trombone soloists and wrote Cavatine Op. 144 for George W. Stewart. In it, he explores the virtuosic and expressive possibilities of the instrument.

Paul Taffanel (1906) by AnonymousLe Musée des instruments à vent

Woodwind: made-to-measure

Throughout his long career Saint-Saëns collaborated with five generations of instrumentists to whom he dedicated numerous works: Louis Dorus (flautist, 1812–1896), Louis Bas (oboist, 1863–1944), Adolphe Leroy (clarinetist, 1827–1880), Léon Letellier (bassoonist, 1859–1943) ...

Sketches of the Odelette Op. 162 by Camille Saint-Saëns (1921) by Camille Saint-SaënsLe Musée des instruments à vent

Tarentelle Op. 6 (1857) was written for Louis Dorus and Adolphe Leroy, promoters of instruments invented at La Couture-Boussey: the cylindrical metal flute of Godfroy and Lot and the Boehm system clarinet by Auguste Buffet.

Patent by Theobald Boehm (1847) by Theobald BoehmLe Musée des instruments à vent

Saint-Saëns also composed Romance Op. 37 for the playful and sounds qualities of the flautist Adrien de Vroÿe, who remained loyal to the conical wooden instruments made in the workshop of Couturiot instrument maker Louis-Esprit Lot (1807–1896).

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