Work: The Swan
About This Work
Camille Saint-Saëns' Le cygne (1886), or The Swan, was one of his most popular pieces of music during the span of his life, although the general public was not aware that it was actually just a part of a larger suite, at the time. The Swan is
actually the 13th movement of a suite called The Carnival of the Animals (1886), or the Grande Fantasie Zoologique, as Saint-Saëns referred to it. It was intended to be a "fun" piece, to satisfy the composer's mischievous wit. Saint-Saëns, throughout his teaching and compositional career, enjoyed writing or improvising parody pieces that made fun of a certain composition or a musical style. At the École Niedermeyer, where he taught some of France's brightest young musicians, he would often escape from the boring lessons by leading the students in parodies of this type. Saint-Saëns did not allow for The Carnival of the Animals to be published during his life, because he feared that it would take precedence over his more serious works. The work was eventually published, though, after the composer's death, by order of his last will and testament.
The Swan was written for the aging cellist Charles-Joseph Lebouc, who was famous for his own playing and for being the son-in-law of the well-known singer Adolphe Nourrit. Saint-Saëns had promised a solo piece for the cellist years previous, but he did not get around to the project until February 1886. By this time, Lebouc was the subject of ridicule in the string-playing community due to a number of bad performance habits that he had acquired in his old age. Once he performed The Swan with its extreme mellowness, he again caused his fellow cellists to take notice of the tenderness in his playing.
The Swan was also used as the basis of a dance piece that was choreographed by Michel Fokine. In 1905, the ballet piece, which was retitled La Mort du Cygne, or The Dying Swan, was performed for the first time by the beloved dancer Anna Pavlova. The Dying Swan has remained in the ballet repertoire, and has been performed by countless ballerinas, including Madame Napierkowska during a recital in 1921 that Saint-Saëns witnessed himself just weeks prior to his death.
-- Chris Boyes
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