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The Story of Nuit Persane

Monday, 29 September 2008 - 1:18pm
During the 1880s, it was fashionable to go to the concerts on Sunday afternoon in Paris, a fact that must have urged Saint-Saëns to compose Nuit Persane.
He had composed in 1870 a collection of six melodies for voice and piano taken from a compilation of poems entitled Mélodies Persanes (Persian Melodies) written by one of his friend Armand Renaud. The latter worked at the Ministry of Fine Arts in Paris. In the spring of 1891, the composer had in mind to utilise again this compilation, using a more modern style. He asked Armand Renaud in August to write a scenario that would link the melodies with the addition of two new songs.

Saint-Saëns quickly this new Nuit Persane quickly, in the suburbs of Alger where he spent most of his winters. Its composition started on 21 November 1891 in Pointe Pescade and was completed just over a month later, on 16 December.

He orchestrated just five of the six Mélodies Persanes. La Splendeur Vide was not kept but its theme is evoked in the orchestral prelude which opens the fourth section of Nuit Persane. Two new movements were added: La Fuite (Flight) and Les Cygnes (Swans)

The interest of the piece is mostly due to the selection of voices. Les Cygnes (Swans) is written for contralto, tenor and chorus, La Solitaire (The Lonely Woman) for solo contralto, Au Cimetière (At the Cemetery) for solo tenor and La Fuite (Flight), Sabre en Main (Sabre in Hand) and Tournoiement (Whirling) for solo tenor and chorus.

In order to give some cohesion to the work, the composer wrote an orchestral preludes for each of the four sections: La Solitaire (The Lonely Woman), La Vallée de l’Union (Valley of Union), Fleurs de Sang (Flowers of blood), Songe d’Opium (Opium Dream). He also incorporated some excerpts of the musical themes and combined these preludes that mixed music and declamation in the melodrama. The speaking part is given to La Voix du Rêve (The Voice of the Dream).

Saint-Saëns’s orchestration was a mixture of musical instruments that worked extremely well. The large wind and brass section included 3 flutes, 2 oboes, a French horn, 2 clarinets and 2 bassoons; 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets and 3 trombones; a string section, harps and percussion instruments (triangle, timpani, cymbals and tambourine).

A harp and five celli that accompany the tenor with great imperturbability gives the melody of Au Cimetière a gloomy but angelic character. In Les Cygnes, we have an extreme division of strings: the violas in two sections, the celli in four and the violins in three sections of two - all of which brings a particular colour and a kind of tranquillity to Les Cygnes.

The tenor’s voice was doubled by a chorus coming out of nowhere with the addition of a repetitive melody that faded progressively in the infinite, it gave a strange colour to the sound of the last melody of the cycle Tournoiement.

Saint-Saëns gave Nuit Persane to Edouard Colonne who conducted it for the first time with his orchestra, at the Châtelet Theatre, on 14 February 1892. It was so successful that it was played again the next Sunday.The singers were Madame Durand-Ulbach (contralto) and the tenor Engel. Mademoiselle Fériel, an actress at Théâtre du Vaudeville was the narrator. The work frustrated some of the music critics who were surprised to see that the composer had written a mystical work based on a tragic vision of life and death. However most of them agreed that the composition offered the amazing aspect of a symbolist poem tinted with oriental colours that required a complex performance that in turn limited its accessibility.

Nevertheless the cantata was accepted and performed by the famous Société des Concerts du Conservatoire on 3 January 1897. Both the critics and the audience received it with great enthusiasm.

Yves Gérard

William Yeoman on Nuit Persane