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Phaëton op. 39

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Phaëton (Camille Saint-Saëns)

Symphonic poem composed in 1873 and first performed on 7 December 1873 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. The work is dedicated to one of the composer’s former pupils, Berthe Le Barbier de Tinan (1839-1903).

“Phaeton has obtained the permission of the Sun god, his father, to drive his chariot through the heavens. But his inexperienced hands are unable to control the fiery steeds. The flaming chariot is thrown off course. It comes so close to the earth that the whole world is in danger of being set ablaze, when Jupiter strikes down the reckless Phaeton with his thunderbolt." In this introductory note to the score published by Durand in 1875, Saint-Saëns summarises the story behind Phaéton, the second of his four symphonic poems. Completed on 12 March 1873, it was premiered on 7 December 1873 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, by the new Orchestra of the “Concert National”, founded in March of that year on the initiative of the publisher Georges Hartmann (1843-1900) and the conductor Édouard Colonne (1838-1910). Inspired by the fatal destiny of that proud and impetuous hero, Phaéton opens impressively with massive chords from the brass, alternating with impulsive flights from the strings then the woodwinds. From bar 4, the harps and strings present a rhythmic motif evoking the galloping of the horses, which is then taken up by the woodwinds until the explosion of the triumphant theme expressed by the brass then the woodwinds. The frantic career of the Sun’s chariot seems to become less perilous with the peaceful melody heard from the horns, but the respite is short-lived. Soon Jupiter, seizing his thunderbolt (represented by the four timpani, the cymbals, the bass drum and the tam-tam), strikes down the chariot, killing the reckless young man. The tumultuous tutti is followed by an episode in which the peaceful horn theme is repeated, thus bringing the symphonic poem to an end. Saint-Saëns also made a two-piano version of Phaéton, which was premièred on 4 March 1874 at the Salle Érard in Paris by Marie and Alfred Jaëll.


publication date : 07/12/23

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