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Exotic sounds from Saint-Saëns, informed by privileged travel

Camille Saint-Saëns
Camille Saint-Saëns

On Aug. 21, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conductor Andris Nelsons, and pianist Dejan Lazic perform Camille Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 5 — the “Egyptian,” a label referring to both the circumstances of its composition (an 1895-96 vacation in Luxor) and the main theme of the second movement, a local tune Saint-Saëns heard sung while cruising on the Nile. It is, in other words, a prime example of the European vogue for exoticism, a fashion of which Saint-Saëns was a dedicated follower; the concerto represents the most diverting and frictionless of Saint-Saëns’s numerous musical travelogues of the near and far East.

At least Saint-Saëns gleaned his impressions from actual travels. He habitually wintered in either Algeria or Egypt, often as the honored guest of local potentates. Algeria was, of course, the controversial centerpiece of France’s colonial empire; in Egypt, the khedives, that country’s rulers, also cultivated connections with France, a tendency that only increased after Britain took over the de facto administration of Egypt in 1882. (Lord Cromer, the domineering British consul-general in Egypt, alleged that the “rather superficial brilliancy” of French thought was preferable to the Egyptians and their “light intellectual ballast”; the antagonism evinced in his characterization of both cultures was, perhaps, the more pertinent factor.)

Saint-Saëns’s perceptive impression of indigenous culture informs the concerto: Recreating the sound of his Egyptian musical sources and Egyptian instruments, he stretched his customary fluency with surprisingly avant-garde ideas. But it also reflects his very European privilege and perspective. A hint of that sensibility stowed away in two boats traversing the concerto. Saint-Saëns’s Nile cruise, from which he gleaned the theme of the second movement, was by dahabiya, the ancient, sail-powered barge that, by the 1890s, conveyed only the wealthiest sightseers; the masses took steamboats. Saint-Saëns’s journey across the Mediterranean, though, was by steamship: state-of-the-art ocean travel, and the sonic source for the thumping, thrumming machinery of the concerto’s finale.

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The concerto extols not only an exotic destination, but a thoroughly comfortable journey. In a later essay, Saint-Saëns found himself “in accord” with the French novelist Pierre Loti regarding both “the charm of the East, and the fatal inability of Europeans to understand any civilizations but theirs”; but he thought that Loti went “a bit far in regretting finding in Egypt railroads, steamships, good hotels, and the electric light.” Musically and otherwise, Saint-Saëns cherished his prerogatives as a tourist.

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Matthew Guerrieri

The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs music by Berlioz, Tsontakis, Saint-Saëns, and Prokofiev at Tanglewood, Lenox, Aug. 21 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets: $20-$101. 888-266-1200, www.tanglewood.org

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.