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La Fiancée du timbalier

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Mélodie for voice (mezzo-soprano) and orchestra, or for voice and piano, set to a poem from Odes et ballades.

In 1887, Saint-Saëns composed two simultaneous versions of La Fiancée du timbalier, one for voice and orchestra, and another which he said was “disarranged for piano” and was more like a reduction of the orchestral version. The orchestral work was probably performed for the first time on 19 February 1888. Édouard Colonne was approached to conduct it but, in the end, the premiere of the work was entrusted to Charles Lamoureux, who gave the mezzo-soprano part to Madame Montalba. Faithful to the story line of Hugo’s poem, which is used in its entirety, the music depicts all thefiancée’s changing moods. The work opens with a march, its regular beat marked by kettledrums to form a military-sounding rhythmic motif which, repeated often, gives the composition energy and unity. The lofty, joyful melodic lines suspended over these staccato rhythmic phrases break off on three occasions during the work to represent, through their felicitous musical setting, particular episodes in the narration. First is the fiancée’s prayer to the saints, underpinned by fluid, delicate orchestral lines,beseeching them to ensure the safety of her timbalier who has gone to fight alongside the Duke of Brittany (lines 16-35). Next, there is the unsettling recto tono in which the fiancée tells of the sinister prediction made by the “Egyptian woman”: the drummer will perish in combat (lines 61-70). Finally, after the joy at the soldiers’ homecoming and the ceremonious cheering “Voici les timbaliers!”, there is the moment when, realising that the prediction has come true, the fiancée gives way to her sorrow as the orchestra dies away over the muted echoes of the initial rhythmic motif.


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