Camille Saint-Saens’ The Swan

In 1994, when the young Russian ice skater Oksana Baiul performed at the Winter Olympics, like millions of other people, I was swept by the grace and deep seriousness of her performance. As she became a swan whose gorgeous white wings first fluttered in the air, and then slowly folded inward as she pirouetted to the ground, I said to myself, “This is beautiful.”  Here is the beginning of the lush and moving music to which she skated.

This is “The Swan,” composed by Camille Saint-Saens of France.  It is part of his 1886 work Carnival of the Animals in which he used different instruments of the orchestra to represent musically the sounds and movements of various animals and birds—and does so in a way that has charm and logic.

I see the entire work as a study in logic and emotion, grace and seriousness; and I’ll be speaking mainly about “The Swan.”  Here is another passage picking up from where we left off played warmly and expressively by the great Yo-Yo Ma on cello joined Philippe Entremont and Gaby Casadesus on the two pianos.

As I studied this piece, I saw that along with its large, sweeping feeling, there is something else surprisingly present too.  In “Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?” Eli Siegel asks:

“Is there a logic to be found in…every work of art, a design pleasurably acceptable to the intelligence, details gathered unerringly, in a coherent, rounded arrangement?—and is there that which moves a person, stirs him in no confined way, pervades him with the serenity and discontent of reality, brings emotion to him and causes it to be in him?”

Looking at the sheet music, I saw that there is a “design” to this piece–and you might even say a very strict one.  The first piano’s right hand is playing 24 sixteenth notes in groupings of four notes a piece, in which three notes ascend and one descends.  And in the left hand there are 12 eighth notes—organized in patterns now of six rather than four in which the first three rise, the second two fall, and the last rises again.  Meanwhile, the second piano is far less rapid.  There are six beats in the measure as a whole.  It is silent for the first beat and then repeats the same octave slowly, five times in a row.  I think these pianos represent the steadiness and coherence of reality but not in a dull or mechanical way, because even as there is repetition, there is variation not unlike the way the water in a pond ripples in the wake of a beautiful bird.  For instance, many measures begin on a different note, and the distances between the highest and lowest notes vary also.  And while these notes have a certain speed, they are never rushed.  There is a design here that is “pleasurably acceptable to the intelligence.”

The notes of the cello are more varied.  They consist of quarter, half, and whole notes, and climb and come down more irregularly.  I especially am moved when 8 eighth notes are played ascendingly and then the top note is held for a entire measure—6 full beats.

I think there is a relation of the horizontal as represented by the pianos and the up and down diagonals in the deep, rich sounds of the cello that is wonderful. The cello has a sound and direction that rises and goes out into space, and then returns. In a recent music class, Mr. Green spoke about how music can have a spatial quality even as it is first a time art. What we hear and what we see in our minds are made one: a swan glides gracefully through water, its long, elegant neck yearningly reaching for the sky, and bowing down with modesty.  It is both graceful and strong.

Hearing this music, it is hard not to be stirred, and in “no confined way.”  After all, what is more tranquil than a willowy swan pedaling softly along the surface of a lake?  And yet, as the music goes from the major to the minor and back again, we hear a striving, a motion forward, a reaching which pervades us with a feeling of “serenity and discontent.”

It is felt by some critics that Saint-Saens was inspired to write this music by a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson on “The Dying Swan.”  And it seems this music also moved the great ballerina Anna Pavlova so much that she worked with the choreographer Fokine to create the famous 1905 solo ballet set to it.

What can we learn from the beauty of “The Swan”?  Like many people, I saw logic and emotion in two separate worlds, and felt that sentiment was sloppy and weak. I generally saved my big feeling for myself.  Sometimes, after—despite myself—I was moved by, say, a painting, or a film, I felt it was time to get back to my logical and “efficient” self that concentrated on money, or how to accomplish the list of things that needed to get done that day.  And I would mock things that I saw as graceful, thinking they were weak.

This division between logic and emotion also caused me pain in love.  At a time in my life when a woman began to have large meaning for me, I became uncomfortable and resentful.  In a class, Mr. Siegel explained: “You’re annoyed because Miss J. has an effect on you and you think you’re slipping.  Strength is equated by us as being as little affected as possible. Strength is being affected.”

We can ask: Are we strong in being affected by “The Swan”?  Would we be weak if we couldn’t be? This music does not jump back and forth between its “logical” segments and its “emotional” ones.  They are present simultaneously throughout.  I’m so glad to have learned from Aesthetic Realism that a person is at his keenest, most logical when he responds truly to what’s beautiful or good in the world because it is then we’re seeing its large, aesthetic structure.

Here is Saint-Saens’ stirring music.