Fantaisie in A major, op. 124 (Saint-Saëns)

…exquisitely crafted, with an elegance and lyricism that has ensured it’s still well-loved and regularly played over a century later.

Program note
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Fantaisie in A major, op. 124

There’s a languid, sun-kissed feel to Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fantasie for violin and harp that may well reflect the composer’s state of mind when he composed it, holidaying in Bordighera on the Italian Riviera in 1907 after overseeing a production of his opera Le Timbre d’Argent staged in Monte Carlo.

The composer was in his early 70s when he wrote this music, having enjoyed a successful career that saw Franz Liszt call him ‘the greatest organist in the world’ and Charles Gounod anoint him ‘the French Beethoven’. By 1907, Saint-Saëns had produced a significant body of work, including the pieces for which he is best known – the Danse Macabre, the ‘Organ’ Symphony, his opera Samson and Delilah, The Carnival of the Animals and his five piano concertos. At the turn of the century, Saint-Saëns’ music appears to look back to an earlier era compared with what was being composed by the likes of Debussy, Schoenberg and Mahler at the time, but it is nonetheless exquisitely crafted, with an elegance and lyricism that has ensured it’s still well-loved and regularly played over a century later.

Saint-Saëns dedicated this Fantasie – a free-flowing work in a single movement – to violinist Marianne Eissler and her sister, harpist Clara Eissler. It’s one of several works the composer wrote for harp, including the solo Fantasy of 1983 and the 1918 Morceau de concert for harp and orchestra.

From the tranquil, mysterious introduction, Saint-Saëns leads his players through a variety of moods, including at one point a particularly Mediterranean-infused section where a repeating harp motif – reminiscent of Spanish guitar – underscores a florid, improvisatory violin line.

The work was immediately popular. Marianne Eissler wrote to Saint-Saëns after the premiere in London to report: ‘My sister and I owe to you the greatest success of our career.’ 

© Angus McPherson, 2021

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