Summer Reruns–Camille Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals

In my past few posts, I’ve been describing my first experiences living in Paris in 1977. (See longer post below.) Since my first weeks in Paris seemed like a chaotic carnival, I’ve chosen the Saint-Saens piece today, simply for the title. The work really has nothing to do with chaos, and in fact, Saint-Saens was clearly a traditional composer who at the end of his life was horrified by the impressionism of Debussy and dissonance of Stravinsky. In fact, because he did not embrace the new composers, he became a bit reviled, but he actually was one of the greatest French composers of the 19th century. Because he had been a prodigy and then composed rapidly and prolifically, he has been dubbed the “French Mendelssohn.”

It is ironic that Saint-Saëns is best known for Carnival of the Animals and especially the movement for cello entitled “The Swan.” Saint-Saëns himself was worried that it would not be taken seriously by the critics of his day so he forbade its publication. It did not see the light of day until after his death and it instantly entered into the repertory. His fear was justified—most people don’t regard him as a “heavy-weight.” That is too bad. I know it kept me from approaching his work seriously and I was blown away a couple of weeks ago when I heard a movement from one of his violin concertos, which I would rank among the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.

Saint-Saens Biography

My Carnival in Paris
My last few entries have focused on my arrival in Paris in January of 1977. Looking back over my journal entries from those first days there has proven difficult for me. When writing this post, I discovered a cache of letters that I had written at the time to my friend, Thom Klem, who remained in Bloomington, Indiana and shared an apartment with another acquaintance, David T**. At one point in our friendship, he thought it important to sent me back all my letters, for which I am eternally grateful. Otherwise, my memories of that time period might have metamorphosed into more rosy ones. Truth be told, it’s interesting to see the patterns of the depression that eventually overtook me. It also makes me marvel at how my friends remained friends despite all my wild mood swings.

During those first weeks in Paris, I went from elation and fascination to abject misery. As I mentioned, I fell right into a ready-made community of Americans who were on their junior year abroad. They were nice enough—they gave me leads on places to stay, escorted me around Paris, invited me to dinners, went to movies with me, and over all acted quite civilly toward me. Unfortunately, I had little in common with them. The all went to a private university, which meant they came from fairly well to do families. Their careers were charted for them—doctors, lawyers, MBAs. Coming from a working class background and wanting to be an artist, I felt somewhat out of place among them.

Everyone seemed paired up as well, which fed into my depression and made me feel profoundly lonely. There was a rather raw-boned, opinionated girl in the clique who took a fancy to me, but I could not find it in me to reciprocate and ended up hurting her feelings. There was one guy, who I became closer to, a Vietnamese immigrant who had been adopted by a car dealer and his wife in somewhere like Kentucky. His name was Thai H**, and I think we hit it off because we both felt like outsiders.

Thai’s mother and father had been active in the government in South Vietnam during the Vietnam war. Fearing for their children, they pulled some diplomatic strings and managed to send their child off to the US to some nice Christian couple. Thai quickly mastered English and was something of a mathematical and engineering whiz kid and was enrolled at Rice College in Texas. After Vietnam fell in 1975, his mother and father were captured by the communists and rehabilitated. When I met him in Paris, he was anguished—his mother had gotten in touch with him and was putting pressure on him to return to Vietnam and give up his posh, bourgeois life-style in the States. He had started tapping into the sizeable Vietnamese community in Paris and had even started reading some Marxist literature.

On my good days, he and I would go exploring Paris—visiting St. Etienne Du Mont church in the Latin Quarter behind the Pantheon and Sorbonne, or Sacre Coeur, Saint Chapelle, or other little gems in Paris. On bad days, I would find myself riding around on the subway for hours, as I went investigating pitiful rooms for rent at exorbitant prices. Any time things didn’t go the way I wanted, I took it personally and used it as an excuse for vilifying the city or its inhabitants. I had come with the intention of learning to speak French, but when I opened my mouth Parisians would instantly detect my accent and start speaking to me in English—sometimes English that was worse than my French. What else did I find to hate—oh yes: the weather in Paris. It seemed to rain every day and I ended up caching a horrible cold.

Originally I had intended to study French, but it that fell through. The crowd suggested going to the Alliance Francaise, but then others counseled against it. I might get stuck in a class of people from non-Indo-European language families, they warned. After become a language teacher years later, I realized that might not have been such a bad thing. We would have only been able to use French as our lingua franca, and we might have become friends. (And I might have gotten invited to some neat parties with interesting food.)

The last straw came when I thought I had finally found a room only to have it fall through. A friend of a friend had shared a flat and his roommate had moved out. I was a shoe-in. But then for some reason, he changed his mind. I figured hanging out with this group of ex-pats wasn’t doing anything for my French, so I decided to leave Paris. My plan was to head to points south—Marseilles, Cannes, or Nice—find a small cheap hotel and spend my time writing and hanging out with the locals. My grandmother had given me the address of distant cousins who reportedly lived in Grenoble. Another fallback plan was to go visit them if things didn’t work out in the south.

After that, I started feeling better emotionally. My cold, however, worsened and as I boarded the train headed for Marseilles, I began to worry about my cold. I had developed an intense sore throat and hacking cough. What if I got sick and died in a squalid little hovel on the côte d’azur?

As you’ve guessed by now, that didn’t happen and though I pity the poor tortured soul I was back then, that trip to the south of France turned out to be just what I needed.


Camille Saint-Saens: “Danse Bacchanale” from Samson and Delilah

Today, I continue writing about my factory experience, and this time it has a direct relation to the featured piece of music. In the summer of 1973, my father told me that his factory was hiring summer help and that I should apply. They paid an unprecedented $3.56 an hour and if you worked on an assembly line you could get what they called incentive. That is, you got an extra few cents for every piece you produced over a certain base number. This factory was called Dodge and made pulleys, gears, and gear boxes for industrial applications like conveyor belts and huge machinery. They did everything. In a huge, dirty, hellishly hot foundry, they poured aluminum and steel. Another building housed a heat treatment plant where they hardened the gears. In the milling plant, long rows of huge chucking machines turned out gears, pulleys, levers and spindles.

How my father came to work in this factory was a story in itself. He had worked for Studebaker’s for 29 years, one of the most successful and innovative car manufacturers in the States until General Motors, Chrysler and Ford forced them out of business. In 1963 the company moved to Canada to avoid going out of business. They laid off all the employees and did not pay any pension benefits to them. So at the age of 48, my father had to find another job and began working to create a pension for his retirement. Dodges hired him straightway, but put him to work as a machine operator-even though at Studebaker’s he had risen to a managerial position.

By the time I graduated from high school, my dad was now working in shipping, which, being even more hyperactive than I, he loved. They first hired me into packing, where I was given what many of the workers thought of as a good job-putting pulleys in boxes. It was a good job because you could get incentive for it. In the morning a guy would wheel around a bin containing hundreds of parts. I had to get a pile of small collapsed cardboard boxes, fold them into shape put a pulley into each one, insert a set of instructions, close the box and stick a label on each box. You can not imagine how mind numbingly boring this job was! It was so tedious and repetitive that I would fall into bed in the evenings and much to my horror, I would dream about putting parts in boxes. To relieve the tedium, I tried bringing a book in, propping it up at eye-level and read while I worked. The foreman called me into his office one day; he was very angry. I just wasn’t productive enough. Every job had been timed and you were expected to meet a certain quota a day. I had missed mine by a mile. That was not OK, because that brought the average down for everyone working there and that made the foreman look bad.

There was another problem as well. I refused to pay my union dues. I figured that since I was only a summer hire and did not get any of the benefits of the union–like collective bargaining–I shouldn’t have to pay. But the other union guys said they would not work if I didn’t join. I was a scab. Had they explained to me that the high wages I got and the various grievance procedures and other protection I enjoyed was the result of their efforts, I wouldn’t have protested in the first place.

The foreman decided I wasn’t working out, so he got me transferred to a stock mover’s job. I was one of the guys who hoicked the various bins of parts around. I was detailed to a crew of consisting of a college guy a couple of years older than me and a middle aged guy who’d been in the Navy during the Korean war. The college kid smoked Kools and bragged about his drinking and sexual exploits continuously. The Navy guy was pretty laid-back and actually talked poetically some time about having piloted ships and what a thrill it was to dock or rendez-vous at sea with another vessel. It wasn’t a bad crew to be on.

There was one other guy in the division who used to come over and hang out with us during the break. He was a nice guy named Jim Boehlein and was a friend of my father’s. Jim worked on the packing line that I got expelled from. He’d found the way to be both productive and keep from going brain dead, and he actually liked to talk about philosophy, art, politics and even classical music. One day I told him about the local classical station and he came in the following Monday and said he had caught the request show. They had played a piece that he really liked. It “had an oboe or something and sounded kind of like, you know, the music you see hear in movies when they show an Arab market.” I knew the piece he meant but not the name. I had listened to the show, too, but missed hearing the announcer give its name.

That was nearly forty years ago, and over the years the same thing happened a number of times. I would turn to a classical music station and hear a part of this piece and miss the title. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I finally learned its name. One evening when I went to pick my daughter up from her orchestral rehearsal, I arrived a bit early and was astonished to hear them playing it! When it was over I hurried to ask her its name and she showed me the music: it was an excerpt from Samson and Delilah by Camille Saint-Saens, who lived from 1835 until 1921.

Best known for this Carnival of the Animals, Saint-Saens wrote prolifically, producing over 160 works in his life time. The web sites I visited while researching this piece bemoan the fact that Saint-Saens is only known for the Carnival and a few other works. He wrote several piano concertos and an organ symphony as well as many songs. He had a fairly cushy life, which earned him the nick-name of “The French Mendelssohn”, though he lived considerably longer. He was recognized for his talent at an early age and became a well respected conductor, composer, and author of books on music during his 86 years on Earth.

It was a nice surprise the way in which I finally discoverd the name of this piece. Nice, too, was remembering one of the bright spots at the factory, a kindly avuncular type, who made my time there bearable.

Download MP3 or buy CD of Danse Bacchanale on Amazon


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