Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was one of the most productive and famous French composers of the 19th century. In 1858 the Church of the Madeleine commissioned their organist – the 23-year-old Saint-Saëns – to write an oratorio for their Christmas celebration. In less than a fortnight he had completed the 10 movement work entitled Oratorio de Noël, Op. 12 (Christmas Oratorio) – a wonderfully intimate work that deserves to be much better known than it is.
Saint-Saëns was fascinated by the music of the past, especially the work of Bach, Mozart and Handel. Indeed, the cantata-like work’s purely instrumental opening movement – the Prélude – is subtitled ‘In the style of Sebastian Bach’. Whilst Saint-Saëns pays homage to the Old Master’s own Christmas Oratorio, stylistically the piece’s French Romanticism is unmistakable. Its lilting pastoral quality creates images of the shepherds tending their flocks in the fields and sets the scene for the Christmas story.