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Title: On the Execution of Music, and Principally of Ancient Music
Author: Saint-Saëns, Camille, 1835-1921
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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[Illustration: M. Camille Saint-Saëns]






       _Delivered at the_

   "_Salon de la Pensée Française_"

_Panama-Pacific International Exposition_

    _San Francisco, June First_

       _Nineteen Hundred_

          _& Fifteen_







_Copyright, 1915_

_by M. Camille Saint-Saëns_




MUSIC was written in a scrawl impossible to decipher up to the
thirteenth century, when Plain Song[1] (_Plain Chant_) made its
appearance in square and diamond-shaped notes. The graduals and introits
had not yet been reduced to bars, but the songs of the troubadours
appear to have been in bars of three beats with the accent on the feeble
note of each bar. However, the theory that this bar of three beats or
triple time was used exclusively is probably erroneous. St. Isidore, in
his treatise on music, speaking of how Plain Song should be interpreted,
considers in turn all the voices and recommends those which are high,
sweet and clear, for the execution of vocal sounds, introits, graduals,
offertories, etc. This is exactly contrary to what we now do, since in
place of utilizing these light tenor voices for Plain Song, we have
recourse to voices both heavy and low.

In the last century when it was desired to restore Plain Song to its
primitive purity, one met with insurmountable obstacles due to its
prodigious prolixity of long series of notes, repeating indefinitely the
same musical forms; but in considering this in the light of explanations
given by St. Isidore, and in view of the Oriental origin of the
Christian religion, we are led to infer that these long series of notes
were chants or vocalizations analogous to the songs of the Muezzins of
the Orient. At the beginning of the sixteenth century musical laws began
to be elaborated without, however, in this evolution towards modern
tonal art, departing entirely from all influence of the antique methods.
The school named after Palestrina employed as yet only the triads or
perfect chords; this prevented absolutely all expression, although some
traces of it appear in the "Stabat Mater" of that composer. This music,
ecclesiastical in character, in which it would have been chimerical to
try to introduce modern expression, flourished in France, in Flanders,
in Spain at the same time as in Italy, and enjoyed the favor of Pope
Marcellus, who recognized the merit of Palestrina in breaking loose from
the grievous practice of adapting popular songs to church music.

In the middle ages, as in antiquity, the laws of harmony were unknown;
when it was desired to sing in two parts, they sang at first in
intervals of fifths and fourths, where it would have seemed much more
natural to sing in thirds and sixths. Such first attempts at music in
several parts were made in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries, when they were hunting for laws, and such music was
discordant. It bore the name of Diaphony. The real Polyphony came in the
sixteenth century with the school of Palestrina.

Later on, little by little, laws were established, not arbitrarily, but
laws resulting from a long experience, and during all the sixteenth
century admirable music was written, though deprived of melody, properly
speaking. Melody was reserved for dance music which, in fact, was
perfectly written in four and even in five part scores, as I have been
able to convince myself in hunting for dance music of the sixteenth
century for my opera "Ascanio."

But no indication of movement, nuances or shading, enlightens us as to
the manner in which this music should be interpreted. At Paris the first
attempts to execute the music of Palestrina were made in the time of
Louis Philippe, by the Prince of Moscow. He had founded a choral society
of amateurs, all titled, but gifted with good voices and a certain
musical talent. This society executed many of the works of Palestrina
and particularly the famous "Mass of Pope Marcellus." They adopted at
that time the method of singing most of these pieces very softly and
with an extreme slowness so that in the long-sustained notes the singers
were forced to divide their task by some taking up the sound when the
others were out of breath. Consonant chords thus presented evidently
produced music which was very agreeable to the ear, but unquestionably
the author could not recognize his work in such rendering. Quite
different was the method of the singers in the Sistine Chapel when I
heard them for the first time in Rome in 1855 when they sung the "Sicut
Cervus" of Palestrina. They roared in a head-splitting way without the
least regard for the pleasure of the listener, or for the meaning of the
words they sang. It is difficult to believe that this music was ever
composed to be executed in such a barbarous manner, which, it seems to
me, differs completely from our musical conceptions; and it is a great
mistake also in modern editions of such music to introduce delicate
shadings or nuances and even employ the words "very expressive."

Palestrina has had his admirers among French literary writers. We recall
the scene created by Octave Feuillet in "M. de Camors." M. de Camors is
at his window; a lady is at the piano; a gentleman at the cello, and
another lady sings the Mass of Palestrina which I have referred to
above. Such a way of playing this music is simply out of the question.
Feuillet had obtained his inspiration for this from a fanciful painting
which he had seen somewhere.

Expression was introduced into music by the chord of the dominant
seventh, the invention of which is attributed to Monteverde. However,
Palestrina had already employed that chord in his "Adoremus," but
probably without understanding its importance or divining its future.

Before this invention the interval of three whole tones (Triton) was
considered an intolerable dissonance and was called "the devil in
music." The dominant seventh has been the open door to all
dissonances and to the domain of expression. It was a death blow to that
learned music of the sixteenth century; it was the arrival of the reign
of melody--of the development of the art of singing. Very often the song
or the solo instrument would be accompanied by a simple, ciphered bass,
the ciphers indicating the chords which he who accompanied should play
as well as he could, either on the harpsichord or the theorbe. The
theorbe was an admirable instrument which is now to be found only in
museums,--a sort of enormous guitar with a long neck and multiple
strings which offered great opportunities to a skilful artist.

It is curious to note that in ancient times there was not attributed to
the minor and major keys the same character as is assigned them
to-day.[2] The joyous canticle of the Catholic church, "O Filii et
Filiæ," is in the minor. "The Romanesca," a dance air of the sixteenth
century, is equally in the minor, just like all the dance airs of Lully,
and of Rameau, and the gavottes of Sebastian Bach. The celebrated
"Funeral March" of Haendel, reproduced in many of his works, is in C
Major. The delicious love duo of Acis and Galathee, which changes to a
trio by the addition of the part of Polyphemus, is in A Minor. When
Galathee weeps afterward over the death of Acis, the air is in F Major.
It is only recently that we find dance airs in the major mood or key.

From the seventeenth century on, music entered into everyday life, never
again to be separated from it. Thus music has remained in favor, and
we are continually hearing executed the works of Bach, of Haendel, of
Hayden, of Mozart and of Beethoven. How are such works executed? Are
they executed as they should be? That is another question.

One source of error is found in the evolution which musical instruments
have undergone. In the time of Bach and Haendel the bow truly merited
its Italian name of "arco." It was curved like an arc--the hairs of the
bow constituted the chord of the arc, a very great flexibility resulting
which allowed the strings of the instrument to be enveloped and to be
played simultaneously. The bow seldom quitted the strings, doing so only
in rare cases and when especially indicated. On this account it happens
that the indication of "legato" is very rare. Even though there was a
separate stroke of the bow for each note, the notes were not separated
one from the other. Nowadays the form of the bow is completely changed.
The execution of the music is based upon the detached bow, and although
it is easy to keep the bow upon the strings just as they did at the
commencement of the nineteenth century, performers have lost the habit
of it. The result is that they give to ancient music a character of
perpetually jumping, which completely destroys its nature.

The very opposite movement has been produced in instruments of the key
or piano type. The precise indications of Mozart show that "non-legato,"
which doesn't mean at all "staccato," was the ordinary way of playing
the instrument, and that the veritable "legato" was played only where
the author specially indicated it. The clavecin or harpsichord, which
preceded the piano, when complete with two banks of keys, many registers
giving the octaves and different tone qualities, oftentimes like the
organ with a key for pedals, offered resources which the piano does not
possess. A Polish lady, Madame Landowska, has studied thoroughly these
resources, and has shown us how pieces written for this instrument thus
disclosed elements of variety which are totally missing when the same
are played upon the piano; but the clavecin tone lacked fulness, and
shadings or nuances were out of the question.

Sonority or tone was varied by changing the keys or register just as on
the organ. On the other hand, with the piano one can vary the sonority
by augmenting or diminishing the force of the attack, hence its original
name of "forte piano,"--a name too long, which was shortened at first by
suppressing the last syllables; so that one reads, not without
astonishment, in the accounts given of young Mozart, of the skill he
showed in playing "forte" at a time when he was playing on instruments
of a very feeble tone. Nowadays when athletic artists exert all their
force upon the modern instruments of terrific sonority, they are said to
play the "piano" (_toucher du piano_).

We must conclude that the indication "non-legato" finally degenerated
into meaning "staccato." In my youth I heard persons advanced in age
whose performance on the piano was extremely dry and jumpy. Then a
reaction took place. The tyrannical reign of the perpetual "legato"
succeeded. It was decided that in piano playing unless indicated to the
contrary, and even at times in spite of such indication, everything
everywhere should be tied together.[3] This was a great misfortune of
which Kalkbrenner gives a manifest proof in the arrangement he has made
of Beethoven's symphonies. Besides, this "legato" tyranny continues.
Notwithstanding the example of Liszt, the greatest pianist of the
nineteenth century, and notwithstanding his numerous pupils, the fatal
school of the "legato" has prevailed,--not that it is unfortunate in
itself, but because it has perverted the intentions of musical authors.
Our French professors have followed the example of Kalkbrenner.

The house of Breitkopf, which until lately had the best editions of the
German classics, has substituted in their places new editions where
professors have eagerly striven to perfect in their own manner the music
of the masters. When this great house wished to make a complete edition
of the works of Mozart, which are prodigiously numerous, it appealed to
all who possessed manuscripts of Mozart, and then having gathered these
most precious documents, instead of reproducing them faithfully, that
house believed it was doing well to leave to the professors full liberty
of treatment and change. Thus that admirable series of concertos for
piano has been ornamented by Karl Reinecke with a series of joined
notes, tied notes, legato, molto legato, and sempre legato which are the
very opposite of what the composer intended. Worse still, in a piece
which Mozart had the genial idea of terminating suddenly with a
delicately shaded phrase, they have taken out such nuances and
terminated the piece with a _forte_ passage of the most commonplace

One other plague in modern editions is the abuse of the pedal. Mozart
never indicated the pedal. As purity of taste is one of his great
qualities, it is probable that he made no abuse of the pedal. Beethoven
indicated it in a complicated and cumbersome manner. When he wanted the
pedal he wrote "senza sordini," which means without dampers, and to take
them off he wrote "con sordini," meaning with dampers. The soft pedal is
indicated by "una corda." The indication to take it off, an indication
which exists even now, was written "tre corde." The indication "ped" for
the grand pedal is assuredly more convenient, but that is no reason for
making an abuse of it and inflicting it upon the author where his
writing indicates the contrary.

As it seems to me, it is only from the eighteenth century that authors
have indicated the movements of their compositions, but the words which
they have employed have changed in sense with time. Formerly the
difference between the slowest movement and the most rapid movement was
much less than at present. The "largo" was only an "adagio" and the
"presto" would be scarcely an "allegro" to-day.

The "andante" which now indicates a slow movement, had at that time its
original signification, meaning "going." It was an "allegro moderate."
Haendel often wrote "andante allegro." Through ignorance of that
fact the beautiful air of Gluck, "Divinities of the Styx," is sung too
slowly and the air of Thaos in the "Iphigenia in Tauris" equally so.
Berlioz recollected having heard at the opera in his youth a much more
animated execution of these works.

Finally, in ancient times notes were not defined as they are to-day and
their value was approximative only. This liberty in the execution of
music is particularly perceptible in the works of Rameau. To conform to
his intentions in the vocal part such music must not be interpreted
literally. One must be governed by the declamation, and not by the
written note indicating a long or short duration. The proof of this is
to be seen when the violins and the voice are in unison--the way of
writing them is different.

A great obstacle to executing ancient works from the eighteenth century
on is in the interpretation of grace notes, "appoggiaturas" and others.
In these cases there is an unfortunate habit in players of conforming to
their own taste, which may guide a little, but cannot suffice in every
instance. One can be convinced of this in studying The Method of Violin
by the father of Mozart. We find there things which one would never
dream of.

The "appoggiatura"[4] (from _appoggiare_, which in Italian means "to
lean upon"), should always be long, the different ways in which it may
be written having no influence upon its length. There is an exception to
this when its final little note, ascending or descending, and preceding
the larger note, is distant from it a disjointed degree. In this case it
is not an "appoggiatura," and should be played short. In many cases
it prolongs the duration of the note which follows it. It may even alter
the value of the notes following.

I will cite in connection with the subject of the "appoggiatura" the
beautiful duo with chorus of the "Passion According to St. Matthew," and
at the same time, I would point out the error committed in making of
this passion a most grandios performance with grand choral and
instrumental masses. One is deceived by its noble character, by its two
choruses, by its two orchestras, and one forgets that it was destined
for the little Church of St. Thomas in Leipsig, where Sebastian Bach was
organist. While in certain cantatas that composer employed horns,
trumpets, trombones and cymbals, for the "Passion According to St.
Matthew," he only used in each of the orchestras two flutes, two
hautbois, changing from the ordinary hautbois to the hautbois d'amour
and the hautbois of the chase,--now the English horn; that is to say,
hautbois pitched a third and a fifth lower. These two orchestras and
these two choruses then certainly were reduced to a very small number of

In all very ancient music, from the time of Lully, one finds constantly
a little cross marked over the notes. Often this certainly indicates a
trill, but it seems difficult to take it always to mean such. However,
perhaps fashion desired that trills should thus be made out of place. I
have never been able to find an explanation of this sign, not even in
the musical dictionary of J. J. Rousseau. This dictionary none the
less contains a great deal of precious information. Does it not inform
us, among other things, that the copyists of former times were veritable
collaborators? When the author indicated the altos with the basses, the
hautbois with the violins, these copyists undertook to make the
necessary modifications. Times have unfortunately changed since.

In Rameau's music, certain signs are unintelligible. Musical treatises
of that time say that it is impossible to describe them, and that to
understand them it was necessary to have heard them interpreted by a
professor of singing.

With clavecinists the multiplicity of grace notes is extreme. As a rule
they give the explanation of these at the head of their works, just as
Rameau did. I note a curious sign which indicates that the right hand
should arrive upon the keys a little after the left. This shows that
there was not then that frightful habit of playing one hand after the
other as is often done nowadays.

This prolixity of grace notes indulged by players upon the clavecin is
rather terrifying at first, but one need not be detained by them, for
they are not indispensable. The published methods of those times inform
us in fact that pupils were first taught to play the pieces without
these grace notes, and that they were added by degrees. Besides, Rameau
in transcribing for the clavecin fragments of his operas, has indicated
those grace notes which the original did not contain.

Ornaments are much less numerous in the writings of Sebastian Bach.
Numberless confusions have been produced in the interpretation of the
mordant,[5] or biting note. It should be executed above or below the
principal note depending on whether the notes which precede the mordant
are superior or inferior to it.

With reference to the difficulties in interpreting the works of Rameau
and of Gluck, I would point out the change in the diapason or pitch
which at that time was a tone lower than in our days. The organ of St.
Merry had a pitch in B flat. In addition to the tempi and the different
instruments which make the execution difficult, one must add the
recitatives which were very much employed and of which at that time a
serious study was made. I recall a beautiful example of recitative in
the "Iphigenia in Tauris."

We come now to the modern epoch. From the time of Liszt, who not only
revolutionized the performance of music on the piano, but also the way
of writing it, authors give to performers all necessary indications, and
they have only to carefully observe them. There are, however, some
interesting remarks applicable to the music of Chopin which recent
editions unfortunately are commencing to falsify. Chopin detested the
abuse of the pedal. He could not bear that through an ignorant
employment of the pedal two different chords should be mixed in tone
together. Therefore, he has given indications with the greatest pains.
Employing it where he has not indicated it, must be avoided. But great
skill is necessary to thus do without the pedal. Therefore, in the
new editions of the author, no account of the author's indications
whatever is observed. Thus in the "Cradle Song," where the author has
indicated that the pedal be put on each measure and taken off in the
middle of it, modern editions preserve the pedal throughout the entire
measure, thus mixing up hopelessly the tonic with the dominant, which
the composer was so careful to avoid.

A question of the greatest importance in playing the music of Chopin is
that of "tempo rubato." That does not mean, as many think, that the time
is to be dislocated. It means permitting great liberty to the singing
part or melody of the composition, while the accompaniment keeps
rigorous time. Mozart played in this way and he speaks of it in one of
his letters and he describes it marvelously, only the term "tempo
rubato" had not at that time been invented. This kind of playing,
demanding complete independence of the two hands, is not within the
ability of everybody. Therefore, to give the illusion of such effect,
players dislocate the bass and destroy the rhythm of the bar. When to
this disorder is joined the abuse of the pedal, there results that
vicious execution which, passing muster, is generally accepted in the
salons and often elsewhere.

Another plague in the modern execution of music is the abuse of the
tremolo by both singers and instrumental performers. With singers, this
quivering is often the result of a fatigued voice, in which case it is
involuntary and is only to be deplored; but that is not the case with
violin and violoncello players. It is a fashion with them born of a
desire to make an effect at any cost, and is due to the depraved taste
of the public for a passionate execution of music; but art does not live
on passion alone. In our time, when art, through an admirable evolution,
has conquered all domains, music should express all, from the most
perfect calm to the most violent emotions. When one is strongly moved
the voice is altered, and in moving situations the singer should make
his voice vibrate. Formerly the German female singers sang with all
their voice, without any vibration in the sound and without any
reference to the situation; one would say they were clarinets. Now, one
must vibrate all the time. I heard the Meistersingers' quintette sung in
Paris. It was dreadful and the composition incomprehensible. Not all
singers, fortunately, have this defect, but it has taken possession of
violinists and 'cello players. That was not the way Franchomme, the
'cello player and collaborator of Chopin, played, nor was it the way
Sarasate, Sivori or Joachim played.

I have written a concerto, the first and last movements of which are
very passionate. They are separated by a movement of the greatest
calm,--a lake between two mountains. Those great violin players who do
me the honor to play this piece, do not understand the contrast and they
vibrate on the lake just as they do on the mountains. Sarasate, for whom
this concerto was written, was as calm on the lake as he was agitated on
the mountains; nor did he fail on this account to produce always a great
effect--for there is nothing like giving to music its veritable

Anciently music was not written as scrupulously as it is to-day, and a
certain liberty was permitted to interpretation. This liberty went
farther than one would think, resembling much what the great Italian
singers furnished examples of in the days of Rubini and Malibran. They
did not hesitate to embroider the compositions, and the _reprises_ were
widespread. _Reprises_ meant that when the same piece was sung a second
time, the executants gave free bridle to their own inspiration. I have
heard in my youth the last echoes of this style of performance. Nowadays
_reprises_ are suppressed, and that is more prudent. However, it would
be betraying the intentions of Mozart to execute literally many passages
in concertos written by that author for the piano. At times he would
write a veritable scheme only, upon which he would improvise. However,
one should not imitate Kalkbrenner, who, in executing at Paris the great
concerto in C Major of Mozart, had rewritten all its passages in a
different manner from the author. On the other hand, when I played at
the Conservatoire in Paris Mozart's magnificent concerto in C Minor, I
would have thought I was committing a crime in executing literally the
piano part of the Adagio, which would have been absurd if thus presented
in the midst of an orchestra of great tonal wealth. There as elsewhere
the letter kills; the spirit vivifies. But in a case like that one must
know Mozart and assimilate his style, which demands a long study.


[1] Plain Song (Fr. _Plain Chant_) was the earliest form of Christian
church music. As its name indicates, it was a plain, artless chant
without rhythm, accent, modulation or accompaniment, and was first sung
in unison. Oriental or Grecian in origin, it had four keys called
Authentic Modes, to which were added later four more called Plagal
Modes. These modes, called Phrygian, Dorian, Lydian, etc., are merely
different presentations in the regular order of the notes of the C Major
scale--first, with D as the initial or tonic note, then with E _et seq_.
They lack the sentiment of a leading seventh note. In these weird keys
Plain Song was conceived for psalms, graduals, introits, and other
offices of the primitive church. Such music was generally called
Gregorian, because St. Gregory, Pope of Rome in the seventh century,
collected and codified it, adding thereto his own contributions. Two
centuries previous it was known as Ambrosian music, after St. Ambrose,
Bishop of Milan.

Originally, a single chorister intoned the Plain Song, to which a full
chorus responded. Later this manner was altered to antiphonal
singing--two choruses being used, one for the initial and the other for
the responsive chant. Such music thus rendered was singularly grave,
dignified, and awe-inspiring.

During the middle ages Plain Song unfortunately degenerated much from
its original sacred character, and, in one disguise or another, popular
and even indecorous songs were smuggled into it. In the time of Pope
Marcellus, 1576, Palestrina was employed to purge Gregorian music of its
scandalous laxities.

M. Saint-Saëns, to illustrate the clever way in which popular songs were
given an ecclesiastical or Plain Song character, has here added to his
luminous lecture the following precious original composition, reproduced
in facsimile, in which through ingenious contrapuntal treatment he gives
a mock sacred form to an old French ditty, "I Have Some Good Tobacco in
My Snuffbox."

[Illustration: musical notation]

"_It is apparent here that by assigning the melody to the tenor part, it
is unrecognizable. Oftentimes licentious songs were taken as the Plain
Chant text, and on this account Pope Marcellus commissioned Palestrina
to put an end to such practices._"

In a note he adds: "It must be remembered that before popular songs were
thus treated in counterpoint [which means that while the song is being
produced by one voice, the other voice or voices are singing against it
notes entirely different from the melody], the text for that kind of
treatment was the Plain Song--the singing of which was always assigned
to the tenor part. In my youth I have heard graduals treated in this
fashion at High Mass in my parish church of St. Sulpice in Paris, which
is still renowned for the splendor of its ceremonials."


(Illustration: musical notation)

There are here illustrations of (a) the difference between the written
manner of Gluck, in a passage from his "Alceste"--and the actually
correct way of interpreting and playing it; (b) a passage from the
scherzo of Mendelssohn's string quartet,--to show how a gay subject can
be treated in the minor mood--and M. Saint-Saëns adds: "Mendelssohn's
scherzo of his 'Midsummer Night's Dream' is in sol minor but it evokes
no idea of sadness, although oftentimes those who play it, deceived by
its minor mood, give it a melancholy character, which is very far from
what the composer intended."


(Illustration: musical notation)

Here M. Saint-Saëns has written a passage from a piano concerto of
Mozart to illustrate how that composer wished the _non-legato_ to be
interpreted--namely, in a flute-like manner,--the piano repeating
textually the passages indicated to be played first by the flutes.

Again he illustrates the same subject with a passage taken from a piano
and violin sonata of Beethoven. The _non-legato_ passages here are not
to be played on the violin in a way approaching the _staccato_, although
they are written as detached notes; and the piano part follows the
rendering of the violin.

A final illustration is furnished in the "Turkish March" of Mozart.

(Illustration: musical notation)

The proper manner of writing the graceful _gruppetto_ is here
given--with an illustration following of how it is to be correctly
played, and how it is incorrectly executed.

[5] Next is illustrated the two ways of playing the _mordant_.

[4] Finally, are several examples of the _appoggiature,_--showing both
the way they are written, and the way they are to be executed.

The last line of the music above is an example of how in Haendel the
rhythm as interpreted differs from that in which the passage is written.

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software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.