The Elegant French

There was a boy from Paris who composed at six, played in the public at eight, and appeared at a formal debut at eleven playing a Mozart and Beethoven Piano Concerto, pieces by Handel and Kalkbrenner. He performed all these pieces from memory. He played Beethoven’s Thirty-Two Piano Sonatas. Soon the boy named Saint Saëns spread all over Europe

Saint Saëns decided against life as a touring virtuoso. He became a professor of composing and among his pupils were Fauré and Messager. Anyone who came in contact with Saint Saëns went away impressed with his phenomenal mastery of the materials of music. Even Richard Wagner, who was a most snobbish musician gave an account:

‘With sureness and rapidity of glance, the young man has a remarkable memory. He was not only able to play my scores, including Tristan, by heart, but could also reproduce their several parts, whether they were leading or minor themes. And this he did with such precision that one might easily have thought he had the actual music before his eyes. I afterwards learned that this stupendous receptivity for all the technical material of a work was not accompanied by any corresponding intensity of productive power; so that when the tried to set up as a composer I quite lost sight of him in the course of time.’

Hans von Bülow was more generous in his appraisal and rated Saint Saëns as an all-rounded musician greater than Liszt. He could read and perform a full orchestra score on the piano without losing its effect. It wasn’t only music that struck a particular interest in Saint Saëns, he was a member of the Astronomical Society of France, and studied Archeology, as well as Science in general. Many of his essays are stimulating and fascinating to read.

Saint Saëns was primarily a composer not a pianist. The Frenchman who achieved most acclaim as a pianist in the middle of the nineteenth century was Francis Planté who was known for his precision and elegance. He was the most important French Pianist until the arrival of Pugno. He was an altogether brilliant pianist as he took first prize at the Conservatoire at the age of fourteen. He made his debut at the age of six in 1858.

Planté graduated from the Conservatoire at the age of eleven. He had the suavity and charm of sound, exquisite delicacy of touch, clarity of hard and brilliant passages, the extravagant bravura that the eleven-year-old boy executed like a Thalberg. At that age, most young pianists have only a basic rudimentary style.

He was considered supreme among French pianists. Fétis used the most complimentary vocabulary to describe Planté’s playing, ‘a style truly incomparable in its astonishing variety of expression, marvelous feeling for nuances from the most delicate to the strongest; the mellowness, suppleness and the grace of fingers; the phrasing so rich and free; his charm, at the same time penetrating the passionate….’’.

His playing might have been elegant but there were peasant like aspects to his personal life. Like all French peasants, he was inclined to stinginess; and like all French peasants, he wanted to own his own land. Even as a great virtuoso, he would stay at small hotels, eat at cheap restaurants, travel third class by railway, save every franc. Finally, he saved enough franc to buy himself a villa in the country.

Following Planté, a few other exponents of French style were Louis Brassin, Louis Diémer and Édouard Risler. Brassin was between the Russian trained Leschtizky and the classically French orientated pianists. To the French, Diémer was famously known as ‘the king of scales and trill’.

Risler studied with Diémer at the conservatoires and won several first prizes and went to study with Liszt at his school. He was the first French pianist who made a big impression in Germany. Up until then, French pianists had a reputation as always light, elegant, and superficial. He spent time in Bayreuth playing German repertoires. After he returned from Germany to Paris, he played the Beethoven’s cycles nine times from 1907 to 1914, the entire Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, major works by Schubert, Weber, Liszt, and the new French School.

After his wife died, he indulged everything in excess and overate himself to death. His doctor begged him to give up his indulgence, but he didn’t and died in 1929.

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