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Composed: 1857

About this Piece

When he composed this Tarantelle in 1857, Camille Saint-Saëns may have been relatively young chronologically but not developmentally. An extremely precocious child prodigy, Saint-Saëns had already completed three symphonies (amid much else) and won first prize in organ at the Paris Conservatoire as well as the admiration of musicians such as Berlioz, Liszt, and Rossini.

It was Rossini, in fact, who helped Saint-Saëns’ Tarantelle win universal acclaim in clique-ridden Paris, with a generous and clever ruse. Long since retired from his active opera career, the Italian composer reigned as the grand old man of musical Paris, famous for his glittering salon, to which he invited Saint-Saëns to present this Tarantelle.

“As there was never a written program for these evenings, Rossini made it known that the piece was by him,” Saint-Saëns wrote much later. “You can imagine the scale of the success under such conditions! When the piece had been encored, Rossini led me into the dining room and made me sit down next to him, taking me by the hand so that I could not escape. Then came a procession of admirers and courtiers. ‘Ah, Maître! What a masterpiece! What wonderful music!’ And when the victim had run through the gamut of congratulations, Rossini replied calmly: ‘I entirely agree. But the work is not by me, it’s by this gentleman here.’ Such a combination of kindness and finesse says more about this great man than many an essay.” Saint-Saëns played the piano part himself, with flutist Louis Dorus and clarinetist Adolphe Leroy. The work retained its early popularity, and, in 1879, the composer orchestrated the piano part.

The tarantella was a dance that took its name from the town of Taranto in southern Italy. The idea that this lively dance somehow dispersed the toxin of a tarantula’s bite has long been debunked, but the dance was quite popular as a concert piece in the 19th century, prized for its wild energy. Saint-Saëns’ example requires all of the athletic virtuosity you might expect from the two wind players, underpinned by a remorseless ostinato in the piano. —John Henken