Orient and Occident

by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)


The Great Paris Exhibitions introduced western Europe to much Eastern culture, which had a profound influence on the impressionist movement and opera in the late 19th century. Think of Debussy and Puccini (Madam Butterfly) for example.

Camille Saint-Saens was the French composer of such famous works as Carnival of the Animals, the opera Samson and Delilah, Danse Macabre and the Organ Symphony.  He was a child prodigy who became France’s most renowned composer with a massive output of works in many different styles.  Late in life, he travelled to all corners of the world.

In 1869 Saint-Saens was asked to write a piece for a gala evening of the Union Centrale des Beaux-Arts in October 1869, which focussed on the relationship of art and industry and featured an exhibition of oriental art. The composition was dedicated to his close friend, Theodore Biais who was a manufacturer of church ornaments. A later performance, with the composer conducting, was given at the World Fair in Paris on 21 October 1878.

Orient et Occident (1869) was the first of three pieces that he wrote for wind band.  It is subtitled “Grand March”, though in reality it is more of a Lisztian tone poem.  The piece has Western (Occidental) and Eastern (Oriental) sections, each using very stereotypical music of those traditions.

In these pieces for wind band Saint-Saens enlarged the standard wind ensemble, the “Harmoniemusik” of Mozart and Beethoven to provide a rousing band for big outdoor occasions and political rallies.

The piece begins in the West, with a rousing march melody that leads to a stirring, processional legato.  The middle section is a homage to Turkish (what Saint-Saens considered Eastern) janissary music, with melodies in the double reeds and jangling percussion.  The piece returns to the West with an exciting fugue on the original theme, and a long exciting accelerando to a tumultuous climax.

The piece has been edited by Tim Reynish with some rescoring to reflect the instrumentation of the modern wind band.

I have attached a recording here of our performance from 2015 when the Junior RBC Wind Orchestra had the opportunity to work for a day alongside the band of the Royal Marines. You may recognise a few fresh young faces of students who are now completing their studies at the senior RBC.