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Septet for Trumpet, String Quintet, and Piano

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Camillle Saint-Saëns
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center Chamber Players play Martinu, Sinding, Stravinsky & Saint-Saëns Sun., Apr. 1, 2012, 2:00 PM
© Robert Markow

The nineteenth century pretty much ignored the trumpet as a solo instrument, both in chamber music and in concertos.  Hence, when Saint-Saëns was asked in 1880 by a Parisian chamber music society called La Trompette (which did indeed foster the promotion of trumpet playing) for a piece of music with this instrument, he supposedly replied: "I shall write for you a concerto for 25 guitars, and to play it you will have to depopulate Castille and Andalusia, but a piece with trumpet? Impossible!" Nevertheless, Saint-Saëns accepted the challenge and worked on the Septet periodically throughout the year, participating as pianist in the first performance on December 28. Much to the composer's astonishment, it quickly became a popular item on concert programs.

The Septet blends musical elements of three centuries. From the eighteenth, it takes its form as a suite, along with other formal considerations; from the nineteenth, it clearly exhibits a warmly melodic character and tonal orientation in addition to containing cross-references between movements; and from the twentieth, it is cast for an unusual, possibly unique combination of instruments. 

The seven instruments are separated into three timbral units: strings, piano and trumpet. As W. W. Cobbett sees the scenario in his classic Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, "the trumpet pierces the ensemble without being vulgarly strident; it introduces its phrases majestically, sustains the tone, adds luster to the melody, or rounds off a sentence with a sparkling trill."

One writer (Pierette Mari) hears in the Préamble a parody of Handel in his "royal occasional" music. The piano attempts to evoke a concerto, there is a fugato in the style of Bach, followed by a sweet evocation of a Schubert quartet, and then-back to Handel-all stuffed into a movement lasting barely four minutes! The mock-serious Minuet contains a central Trio section that combines in unison the tone color of the trumpet in its lower range with that of the strings. The Intermède is truly serious, a miniature funeral march with its rhythmic tatoo marked by the piano over which strings and trumpet unfurl melodic lines of great pathos. Merriment and rambunctious good humor return in the final Gavotte, a lively dance in duple meter originally from a region in southeastern France whose inhabitants were known as Gavots. Each phrase of this peasant dance always starts with a two-note upbeat on the second half of the measure.