12.19.2011

Christmas Offering: Saint-Saëns/Burne-Jones

Oratorio de Noël
Camille Saint-Saëns
1863

File:Edward Burne-Jones Star of Bethlehem.jpg
The Star of Bethlehem, Edward Burne-Jones, 1890
"Why this is Bach!" exclaimed Jules Pasdeloup, conductor of the premiere performance of Camille Saint-Saëns' (1835-1921) Oratorio de Noël. Not a particular complement in eighteenth century Paris it is entirely fitting for Saint-Saëns, a composer known for a conservative and sometimes academic aesthetic. The style of this piece not only glances back, but passionately fixes its gaze upon the stylistic precedents of not only Bach but Handel, Mozart, and Haydn. I find nothing wrong with such an aesthetic bent, and indeed find many fresh albeit restrained innovations in the work. The use of the organ, a Saint-Saëns staple, has classical contours, but undeniably French registration colors. Also I am attempting to recall another time when I've heard a Latin text set and delivered so emotionally. Perhaps Mahler's Symphony 8. The Trio (mvt 7) is particularly beautiful with soprano, tenor, and bass exchanging imitative entrances to the accompaniment of harp and organ. Like most things written by this composer this piece deserves a second look, perhaps with ears more forgiving of its creator's proselytizing positions and more introspective and meditative. Visual art perhaps can help...

Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was a British painter, originally destined are palpablefor a career in the church until he became swept up in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. It was an artistic movement which venerated the past, especially the medieval ages as seen through the eyes of Malory's La Morte d'Arthur. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, father of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, compared him to Albrecht Dürer. This approbation pointed to the artist's emotional and iconic vision of past events, something Burne-Jones was to utilize in his revitalization of Britain's stained glass window art. In The Star of Bethlehem we look back at an old story, using old images, much like Saint-Saëns. To me the characters (very Arthurian) appear petrified in a brilliance of color and detail, as though they have been sitting there a long time, waiting to be seen with some careful eyes. It is an enigmatic painting, at once light and heavy, straight forward and terribly mysterious. It is hard to know what they're saying, as though the air is thick with a silence bunting with meaning.


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