Camille Saint-Saëns: Le Rouet d’Omphale
Camille Saint-Saëns’ symphonic poem Le Rouet d’Omphale (‘Omphale’s Spinning Wheel) was his first in the genre. Originally composed as a piano work in 1871, Saint-Saëns orchestrated it for orchestra and it received its premiere in Paris 1872. At the start of the score Saint-Saëns left a note for the conductor:
“The subject of this symphonic poem is female seduction, the triumphant struggle of weakness against strength. Le Rouet is only a pretext, chosen only from the point of view of the rhythm and the general pace of the piece. People who might be interested in the details will see Hercules groaning in the links he cannot break, and Omphale mocking the vain efforts of the hero.”
Le Rouet d’Omphale is part of a set of four symphonic poems that Saint-Saëns wrote during his life. The other three in the series are La jeunesse d’Hercule, Phaéton and La danse macabre.
The piece opens with an effective imitation of a spinning wheel led by the violins and upper woodwind. The fluttering and circular motion keeps the wheel spinning before the Scottish-snap-esque rhythm bursts forward from the violins. The bouncy melody is passed around the upper strings and winds which creates a musical dialogue between the sections.
The light and carefree first theme is then challenged by the more sombre second theme. Led by the basses, this section shows a lamenting and groaning Hercules as he can’t seem to break the spirit of the first theme. The heaviness in the fluctuating melody bleeds into the orchestra, and is further emphasised by the brass.
The swells show a strong force beginning to get more irate. The intensity grows and leads to a brass-led climax that shows a groaning Hercules become more weary. The spinning wheel returns in scintillating style. Light in texture, the upper winds lead this new section. Solo fragments from the solo oboe, flute and clarinet sits on top of a sparse accompaniment.
A homage to the opening is heard as the strings revert back to the original material. Saint-Saëns’ ingenious orchestrations add to the overall charm to the piece, with a real variety of instruments being used really effectively. This grand symphonic illustration ends with a very delicate violin motif that shows the wheel slowing down until the very last second.
Camille Saint-Saëns’ Le Rouet d’Omphale is an illustrative work that showcases some of the composer’s most ingenious orchestrations. From the evocative spinning wheel, to the lamenting of the powerhouse Hercules, Le Rouet d’Omphale takes you on quite the journey!
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