SAINT-SAËNS The Swan
From Saint-Saëns’ magical suite, Carnival Of The Animals, comes this challenging but beautiful piece. Bridget Mermikides introduces ‘Le Cygne’.
Bridget Mermikides arranges and transcribes a challenging but beautiful piece from Saint-Saëns’ magical suite, Carnival Of The Animals.
This month we return to the excellent composer Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), whose Aquarium we tackled in GT245. Saint-Saëns had a wide range of skills, from respected music teacher (with students such as Gabriel Fauré) to multi-instrumentalist (piano, organ, conductor) and a prodigious composer for a wide range of instruments and ensembles. Despite his enormous output of superb pieces, it is perhaps one small set of works that he composed as a ‘distraction’ – when he should have been writing his third symphony – that has endured the most popular appeal. The 14-movement work Carnival of the Animals (1886), despite (or perhaps because of) being written with little ambition is full of care-free imagination, humour, unusual instrumentation and musical skill. Each movement of the suite is inspired by different animals. It perfectly captures with its instrumentation, melody and harmony the characteristics of the subjects, from the swirling motion of fish in Aquarium (movement 7), a plodding string melody in Tortoises (movement 4) and the trilling activity in Aviary (movement 10).
Here, I’ve arranged movement 13, the stunningly beautiful Le Cygne (The Swan). It was originally composed for the cello and two pianos of the Carnival’s unusual ensemble, but is now better known as a cello solo. However, it has also been arranged for a wide range of instrumentation – including being a staple of the theremin’s repertoire.
The piece is characterised by a harmonically sophisticated arpeggiated accompaniment by the pianos, while the cello plays a stunningly beautiful melody inspired by the mythical but beautifully romantic idea of a dying swan’s final song.
Despite the relatively slow lyricism of the melody and the guitar-like arpeggios, how to make these two essential elements work on solo guitar is a real challenge. Fortunately, I was helped when I came across an ingenious tuning for this piece made by the guitarist Mike Georgiades (mikegeorgiades.com), who kindly allowed me to adopt it for this arrangement along with many of his brilliant arrangement ideas.
So this arrangement uses the rare open Eb tuning, which is (from sixth string to first, low to high) Eb-Bb-Eb-G-Bb-Eb. This is like holding an open E chord but with the whole guitar tuned down a semitone. This open tuning means that it becomes possible to use open strings in the correct key while playing a high melody. The choice of Eb major (transposing down from the original key from G major) means that each string need only move a semitone, the fourth and fifth string up a semitone, the rest down a semitone.
However, even with this tuning the piece is still not easy to play, but it is possible with some careful work to keep the melody flowing and lyrical and the accompaniment balanced. The tab captions will help you achieve this and, remember: slow, patient work is always the fastest path to success.
The piece iS noT So eaSy To play, buT iT iS poSSible To keep The melody flowing and The accompanimenT balanced.