Camille Saint-Saëns, sans Sax

Camille Saint-Saëns, circa 1880

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was a contemporary of Adolphe Sax, and like many composers from this period, he experimented with the saxophone in his works.  The first piece Saint-Saëns used the saxophone was in the cantata, Les noces de Prométhée (1867). This piece contains parts for two altos and a baritone saxophone.  The saxophone parts are written in a style where they are integrated into the orchestra rather than featured in a solo.  Les noces de Prométhée won the Grande Fête Internationale du Travail et de l”Industrie, where he was judged by Rossini, Auber, Berlioz, Verdi, and Gounod.[1]  What’s frustrating about this work is that after Saint-Saëns won this competition, the festival that sponsored the competition refused to perform it. To learn more about this piece, check out this fascinating article about Les noces de Prométhée and the history behind the work.

The first Saint-Saëns opera that includes the saxophone, Henry VIII, premiered at the Palais Garnier in 1883. For this opera, Saint-Saëns used English renaissance chorales—music that would have been played in Henry VIII’s court—as main themes for the arias and dance music. The addition of 19th century instruments, like the saxophone and other Sax instruments, stick out as inauthentic to the overall production.  In the score, the banda includes five saxophones (S/2A/T/B), the Eb clarinet, 2 cornets, trumpet in F, 2 saxotrombas, 9 saxhorns, 3 trombones, and a tambour (field drum). With such a large coterie of instruments it’s no surprise that when Henry VIII is staged, the banda is comprised of a random mixture of instruments rather than the original instrumentation.  It’s not clear why Saint-Saëns used such a large banda, as the banda is underutilized, only playing for two minutes in Act I, scene VI, page 130-134 in the score; it’s quite minuscule in this three hour+ long opera (minute 1:35 in the video below; the tenor sax and baritone sax can be heard around minute 2:05).  

The last opera Saint-Saëns wrote that used saxophone is his 1911 opera, Déjanire, an opera about the life Hercules.  In Act IV, the score includes the soprano saxophone in C. What is confusing about the inclusion of the saxophone in the last act is that the saxophone and the other woodwinds play a melody in unison.  It’s difficult to understand why he went to the trouble of including a saxophone, and then hid it in the instrumentation. Déjanire received few performances after its premiere, and I could find no recordings of the full opera. However, in December 2020, the Munich Radio Orchestra was scheduled to perform this opera, but the event was cancelled.[2]  The publisher, Durand, does not include the soprano saxophone in the instrumentation on its website. So it’s unclear whether or not the saxophone is used when this opera is performed.

To sum up, Saint-Saëns opera/cantatas that use the saxophone are rarely performed, or the saxophone is excluded from the work. If you do get a chance to hear one of Saint-Saëns operas, it will be sans saxophone.


[1] Fallon, Daniel M, James Harding, revised Sabina Teller Ratner. “Saint-Saëns, (Charles) Camille” Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online. https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.proxy108.nclive.org/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000024335?rskey=NdnPck&result=1. Date accessed 9/8/2020

[2] https://www.br-ro.com/dejanire-13-12-2020/k17593/. Date accessed 1/25/2021

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