The Parisian composer Camille Saint-Saëns was as social as a butterfly and as curious as a cat. A beloved bon vivant in the musical life of mid-nineteenth century Paris, he counted among his friends Hector Berlioz, Gioachino Rossini and Charles Gounod. A taste for travel took him to South America, northern Africa, and eastern Asia, and during a concert tour in St. Petersburg he is said to have danced an impromptu ballet with Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. A prolifically talented musician who made his debut performing concertos by Beethoven and Mozart at age 10, he was also a devotee of Classical literature and the natural sciences, and the money he received for the first publication of his music he quickly spent on a telescope.
On December 4, NOVA will perform Saint-Saëns’ zoological extravaganza Carnival of the Animals, written during a few days while Saint-Saëns was on vacation in Austria. Although it is now a beloved staple of the concert repertoire, Saint-Saëns forbade performances of the work during his lifetime out of concern for his reputation: the work bubbles with child-like good humor while offering one irreverent musical parody after another.
Saint-Saëns’ many interests–the telescope foremost among them–exemplify a nineteenth century interest in harnessing technology for the sake of natural observation. In the twentieth century, however, technology and nature would begin to represent two divergent sources of inspiration for composers and artists. At the vanguard of composers whose interest in technology pushed the boundaries of musical sounds stands Edgard Varèse, a French composer whose early artistic contacts and influences included Dadaists in Paris, modernist composers and writers in Berlin, and (after moving to the United States in 1915) the major American cultural institutions of the 1910s and 1920s.
Varèse would make his deepest mark on music with his electronic compositions, which he began in earnest in the 1940s. Yet his early work displays an interest in how the material technology of an acoustic instrument may be exploited for new sounds. His composition for solo flute Density 21.5, which will be performed by Lisa Byrnes on NOVA’s concert, includes many examples of so-called “extended techniques,” such as clicking the flute’s keys. This will be joined by Tristan Murail’s, composition Vampyr! for solo electric guitar, which brings into the chamber music hall one of the most significant musical technologies of the twentieth century.
One of Murail’s teachers was Olivier Messiaen, a French composer and organist whose work brims with a unique harmonic language. In contrast to his contemporary Varèse’s interest in technology, however, Messiaen turned to nature for his musical inspiration. The most important source of natural influence for Messiaen was bird-song, and he spent decades transcribing the songs of different species and incorporating these songs into his music.
NOVA’s upcoming concert will feature two works for piano and violin. The first is by Messiaen: his achingly beautiful Theme and Variations for violin and piano, written in 1932 as a gift to his new wife, the violinist and composer Claire Delbos. The second is the Sonata for Violin and Piano by Francis Poulenc, a work of thrilling virtuosity and profound lyricism composed in 1942 in memory of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.