Late Masterpieces
Camille Saint Saens (1835-1921) was first introduced to the piano at the age of two (when it was discovered that he had perfect pitch), and wrote his first symphony at the age of 16. And he was still composing right at the end of his life, aged 85. Among his very last works are three sonatas for wind instruments: the Oboe Sonata (Op 166), Clarinet Sonata (Op 167) and Bassoon Sonata (Op 168). “I am using my last energies to add to the repertoire for these otherwise neglected instruments,” he wrote. His intention was to write a larger set, but sonatas for flute and cor anglais weren’t completed before his death in Algiers at the very end of 1921. Saint Saens had been a firebrand in his day and a champion of Liszt and Wagner, but in his old age he became a conservative, unable to comprehend the music of Debussy or Stravinsky, for instance.  The sonatas ignore contemporary trends and look back to classical models, while they also conform to the French style of transparency and coolness. The Oboe Sonata is particularly melodic, with a graceful Andantino to start, a lilting 9/8 dance for the middle movement, framed by meditative slow sections, and a lively gigue for the finale, showing that the old man still had some energy left. All three sonatas have retained their place in the repertoire.