I have just spent the last few weeks writing up a piece of scientific research that I should have completed years ago. What took me so long? Well, some problems with the analysis, but basically a general dissatisfaction with the whole thing and insufficient motivation to just get the thing finished. The relevance of this little story is that it makes me wonder whether something similar happened to Saint-Saens when he wrote this early Piano Quartet.

Saint-Saens was a composer to whom, he claimed, composing came easy. “I live in music like a fish lives in water. I write music as an apple tree produces apples” is one of his famous quotes. Why then did it take such a prolific composer over 2 years to write his first major piece of chamber music. It is certainly not a fiendish piece to play. In fact it’s entirely unremarkable. I’ve listened to this piece several times now and it is certainly not unpleasant, but it is kind of disconcerting that one cannot remember any of the thematic material of any movement even as the music is being played. It’s the musical equivalent, in other words, of Superman’s kiss in Superman II, and that weird pen object in Men in Black. If a piece of music was instantly forgettable, it is this Piano Quartet. Therefore, my hypothesis is that Saint-Saens himself recognised this and simply lost interest in the piece after starting it as a 16 year-old. Finally completing the piece in a ‘oh bugger it, I must get that bloody thing finished’ spurt of productivity two years later in 1853.

The only other thing worth commenting on is that the quartet really does sound a bit like a transitional piece between the Mendelssohnian pastiche style of his earliest works, to a more Gallic French-folk-song style that became more familiar in Saint-Saens later works. The first movement starts off with a gentle slow introduction in 3/4 before segueing into a Mendelssohnian rapid 6/8 Allegro with agitated strings, rather like Felix M’s octet. The second subject changes take into the French folksong style, before reverting back to Mendelssohnism quite effectively. Towards the end the movement nicely switches to 9/8 hustle bustle, but with the 3/4 slow intro tune over the top. This first movement is the best of the three.

Movement 2 is gentle and benign but pretty straightforward air and slight variation, whilst the final movement is hustly-bustly but with basically a bit to much of everyone playing the same thing at once. It’s difficult to imagine that Saint-Saens felt much empathy for this work. It disappeared from his catalogue, only turning up again as a manuscript in the early 1990s (for years it was assumed his only contribution to the Piano Quartet genre was his Op.41 B flat quartet and the (really good) Barcarolle, which kind of cheats by throwing in a harmonium). Perhaps the only satisfaction, from Saint-Saens point of view, was just getting the bloody thing written. A bit like my paper.

Piano Quartet in E major

Why you might want to listen to it: has vague curiosity value as Saint-Saens’ first piece of chamber music – and there’s quite an effect bit with a viola rapid repeating the same note with the piano playing a vaguely beach boys’-sounding chord progression over the top in the first movement. But if the highlight of your piece is a viola playing the same note lots of times, well that’s damning with faint praise isn’t it?

Why you might want to avoid it: The main tune in the last movement is…. nope, can’t remember.

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