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Saint-Saëns and Mendelssohn

There is a curious resemblance between Saint-Saëns and Mendelssohn which may have been racial. Where they agree they are very much alike; and where they differ they do so antithetically Both possess keen musical intellects, superbly trained. Both blossomed early, achieving a precocious maturity; Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture made him famous at eighteen, but Saint-Saëns wrote his first Symphony when he was sixteen. Mendelssohn shone as a pianist, organist and conductor very early in his career, and Saint-Saëns was organist at the Madeleine when he was twenty-three, and soon established himself as a concert-pianist and conductor of first rank. Mendelssohn was a classicist, and so, except for a brief period when he fell under the glamorously romantic spell of Liszt and Wagner, was Saint-Saëns. Wagner’s penetrating criticism of Mendelssohn that he was a “musical landscape painter” might have been applied to Saint-Saëns, for both possessed a remarkable gift for painting tonal pictures of the exteriors of things, and both lacked profound depth of insight. Both were extremely versatile, writing all kinds of music for all sorts of instrumental combinations. With his concerto, Saint-Saëns did almost as much for the ‘cello as Mendelssohn did for the violin with his.

But for Felix the Happy, we must read Camille the Sardonic—this difference between them is obvious when you compare the Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Danse Macabre: where Mendelssohn fled romantically to Nature in the Hebrides Overture and the Scotch and Italian Symphonies, Saint-Saëns went to the literary classics in the Rouet d’Omphale, and Phedre tone poems.
Both were great travelers but while Mendelssohn found his chief comfort in pious, Victorian England, Saint-Saëns preferred the hot breath of the Sahara desert. While Mendelssohn wrote oratorios with Elijah in the lead and St. Paul some distance behind, Saint-Saëns wrote operas with Samson and Delila coming first and Henry VIII some distance behind. Both had considerable literary talent, but Mendelssohn expended his in sentimental letters to his friends, while Saint-Saëns wrote criticisms for the papers, and wielded a vitriolic pen in public controversy. And lastly. Mendelssohn died young, whereas Saint-Saëns lived to be eighty-six; but in both cases the years were filled with hard work.

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You are reading Saint-Saëns and Mendelssohn from the May, 1922 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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