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The violinist Max Bruch once lamented that while he and Brahms were contemporaries, five decades on Brahms would be remembered for all the brilliant works he had written, while Bruch himself would be known purely for his Violin Concerto in G minor, written when he was twenty-eight. The immense success of the work meant that Bruch spent the rest of his career trying to emulate that success with works. Was he successful in breaking out of its shadow? Let's put it another way. Do you know of other works by Bruch? The majority of us probably cannot. Bruch joins a list of composers defined primarily by one work. Think Samuel Barber and Adagio for Strings. Or Cesar Franck and Panis Angelicus. Similar one-hit wonders can be found in the pop world of course: can you think of any other songs performed by the artistes that popularised Mambo No. 5 or Macarena?
The fear of being defined by the overwhelming success of one work may have been the reason why Camille Saint-Saens actually banned the performance of one of his works during his lifetime. The Carnival of the Animals is an orchestral piece where different instruments take turns to musically depict animals such as a bat, fish and an elephant. Saint-Saens was worried that popularity of the light-hearted piece would typecast him, and his more serious compositions might have to live in its shadow. So he banned the performance of the whole work, relenting only to allow performance of one movement, The Swan, where the cello shows off its lovely higher register while being accompanied by the piano.
Among one of the fourteen movements in Carnival is one entitled Pianists. This is the composer's cheeky jibe at keyboard musicians who, in his mind, spent a fair bit of time repetitively going over mindless exercises like scales.
The ban on Carnival and the dis-association with the light-hearted piece about animals may have helped Saint-Saens get his other works taken seriously - works such as his Organ Symphony. The work, officially known as Symphony no. 3 in C minor, featured the pipe organ in various sections, and also includes parts for two- and four-handed piano. Can you imagine how revolutionary it was at the time?
When we use the term "symphony", we use it to mean a large-scale orchestral work without the piano. (An orchestral work with a piano as the soloist is known as a "concerto".) But Saint-Saens didn't just stop at using the piano, he wrote for four-handed piano (two people playing a duet) with orchestral instruments, and included the pipe organ as well! In the whole canon of classical music there is only one Organ Symphony - and it is Saint-Saens.
Music from the work was used in the film Babe, about a pig raised by a border collie, and among other things, helps a duck destroy an alarm clock, fights a cat, sorts brown hens from white ones, talks to cows, and who herds sheep and does the job of a sheep dog.
Perhaps for Saint-Saens there was no escape from the animals after all!
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