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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Camille Saint-Saëns

I find it fascinating to think of the music (and other events) composers with long lives could have experienced. Today’s composer was born when Mendelssohn and Chopin were active. He knew Berlioz, Liszt, Fauré and Tchaikovsky. He was present - albeit briefly - at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and he died when Schoenberg was developing twelve-tone technique. His name was Camille Saint-Saëns.

Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in October 1835. His father died when Camille was only three months old. His mother raised him with the help of her aunt, and it was great-aunt Charlotte who introduced him to the piano when he was three. In the seven years between this start and his first public performance he made astonishing progress. His début - at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, no less - saw him perform the Mozart B flat concerto, K450. Some sources say he performed the C minor piano concerto of Beethoven as well. The fact that he played from memory was commented upon, as it was regarded as unusual at the time. After this he offered to play any one of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas as an encore, again from memory. Word of this incredible feat - remember, he was ten years old - spread across Europe and was even mentioned in a newspaper in the United States.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1846)

A stunning fact which is often forgotten these days is that Saint-Saëns was not only a skilled musician. Even as a boy his general education displayed prodigious gifts in a wide range of disciplines. He studied the French classics, religion, Latin and Greek. He became skilled in mathematics and the natural sciences, with particular emphasis on astronomy. He also studied archaeology and philosophy. Throughout his life Saint-Saëns was a practitioner and respected writer on virtually all these subjects. While music was his principal claim to fame, it was by no means the only field in which he excelled. With the money he was paid for the publication of his first printed work, he bought himself a telescope.

Saint-Saëns entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1848 when he was 13, studying organ; he won the organ first prize two years later in 1851. By this stage he was composing ambitious large scale works. A Symphony in A major (unnumbered) was composed around 1850 when he was 15, and it’s an extraordinary achievement for a boy his age. [listen]

In 1851 he started studying composition and orchestration with Fromental Halévy, a respected musical bureaucrat and composer of the period who is primarily remembered today for his opera La Juive.

Saint-Saëns’ musical studies also included training in accompaniment and singing. He failed to win the Prix de Rome, the musical grant for which all French composers competed at the time, but he did win other awards for his compositions. The mid-1850s included his “official” first symphony [listen] plus another unnumbered symphony, called Urbs Roma. [listen] On a more intimate scale, he wrote a Piano Quintet in 1855, when he was 20. [listen]

In his early 20s Saint-Saëns was involved in musical scholarship at the highest level. As an editor he contributed to the ground-breaking complete edition of the works of Gluck, and later in his life was to undertake similar work on publications of music by Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt and Rameau. Saint-Saëns rapidly found himself in the company of the greatest musicians of his day, being admired and befriended by Gounod, Rossini and Berlioz. Liszt was impressed with Saint-Saëns as a composer and as a pianist. In 1853 (aged 18) Saint-Saëns was made organist of the church of St Merry, where his Mass op 4 was performed. Originally scored with orchestral accompaniment, this recording uses a version for two organs, one grand organ and a smaller “choir” organ. [listen]

In 1858 Saint-Saëns became organist one of the major Parisian churches, La Madeleine, a post he held until 1877. Liszt heard him improvising there and hailed him as the greatest organist in the world. This Wedding Benediction was composed for La Madeleine; it dates from 1859. [listen]

La Madeleine

It was around this time that Saint-Saëns undertook a trip to Italy, and as we would say today, he was bitten by the travel bug; for the rest of his life he was an inveterate traveller. The late 1850s saw the production of the second symphony [listen] and many other works, including sacred works, songs, organ music and “lyric scenes”. Lyric scenes are perhaps best described as stand-alone operatic scenes for a single voice and orchestra, usually intended for concert performance but which could also be staged if required. These prepared the way for an activity which would occupy Saint-Saëns a great deal later in his life: opera.

Saint-Saëns was in this earlier part of his very long life an advocate for some of the up-and-coming composers who were not so popular in established musical circles, especially in France. He was one of the first to promote and defend the music of Richard Wagner (in the form of Tannhaüser and Loghengrin) although in later years he would write disparagingly of Wagner’s theories. Schumann was another composer whose music he played, contrary to the tide of contemporary opinion. Perhaps it was the influence of these composers which led to the appearance in the 1860s of Saint-Saëns’ first works of a descriptive nature. The Spartacus overture of 1863 is a case in point, as is the famous Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso of the same year, with its Spanish flavour and flamboyant character. [listen]

The first three of Saint-Saëns’ five piano concertos date from this first phase of his compositional maturity and they remind us that, among all his other gifts, Saint-Saëns was a first rate pianist. The second concerto, written in 1868, is still occasionally heard today, perhaps his earliest work to have maintained a place in the more or less standard repertoire. [listen]

It was in the first half of the 1860s that Saint-Saëns held his only formal teaching appointment, at the Ecole Niedermeyer. Among his students there were composers of the younger generation, including Gabriel Fauré and André Messager, who became lifelong friends. His students revelled in his teaching methods; he was clearly a stimulating and inspiring teacher.

In 1871 Saint-Saëns co-founded the National Society of Music, with the purpose of encouraging, performing and disseminating music by French composers. This involvement had wide-ranging results, and helped to encourage a general revitalisation in French music in the second half of the 19th century. In addition to some of Saint-Saëns’ own music, the Society premiered works by composers such as Emmanuel Chabrier, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas and Maurice Ravel.

The second major phase of Saint-Saëns’ creative life spans roughly 1870 to 1896. In the 1870s he produced works which showed a keen awareness of developments elsewhere in Europe. At the forefront of these are his four symphonic poems, directly inspired by the symphonic poems of Liszt (who can be said to have invented the form). The most famous of these, Danse macabre, is one of Saint-Saëns’ best-known works, but the other three should be heard more often. They are Omphale’s Spinning Wheel, The Childhood of Hercules, and the dazzling Phaéton of 1873. This last describes Phaeton’s journey across the skies in the chariot of the sun god, during which he loses control and plunges towards the earth. The world is saved from destruction by the intervention of Zeus, who destroys Phaeton with a thunderbolt. [listen]

Franz Liszt

As well as keeping abreast of current developments, Saint-Saëns had an interest throughout his life in music of the past. His interest in Bach and Mozart was crucial to the renewed acceptance of both composers in France at this time, and his admiration for Handel inspired a personal interest in oratorio. This in turn led to the composition of his own such works: The Flood in 1875 and The Promised Land much later in 1913.

In 1875 Saint-Saëns, aged 40, married the 19-year old Marie-Laure Truffot. It was never a happy marriage, and the stresses were added to enormously by the fact that the couple’s two young sons, born two years apart, died within six weeks of each other in 1878. Three years later, while on holiday with his wife, Saint-Saëns suddenly left her without warning. They were legally separated but never divorced, and they never again met in person. (Mme Saint-Saëns lived until 1950; she died near Bordeaux, at the age of 94.) After this time Saint-Saëns became particularly close to Fauré and his young family, happily fulfilling the role of favourite uncle and finding in that happy household an outlet for his own paternal instincts.

Camille Saint-Saëns (c. 1875)

In 1876 Saint-Saëns was present at the second series of performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth. He was particularly active as a writer for scholarly and artistic journals at this time as well. Some of his writings were controversial, others less so, but the breadth of his interests and expertise is staggering. In addition to covering all sorts of issues relating to new music of the time, Saint-Saëns’ published articles include studies of the décor of ancient Roman theatres, a discussion of the musical instruments depicted in murals at Pompeii and Naples, and many on philosophical matters. He was also a respected authority on astronomy.

Many of Saint-Saëns’ best-loved works come from this period of his life. The well-known Danse macabre was written in 1874, and the fourth piano concerto was produced the following year. The concerto shows that Saint-Saëns as an innovator in terms of musical structure. The regular three movements of a concerto are in this work modified into two, which in turn are comprised of five smaller sections. The sense of dramatic timing in Saint-Saëns’ music by this stage of his career is assured, something which would soon bear fruit in other areas. [listen]

Five years later, in 1880, came the last of Saint-Saëns’ three violin concertos. (He also wrote two cello concertos and many other works for solo instrument and orchestra which are not in concerto form.) The third violin concerto is in the more typical three movements, but its passionate dynamism makes it an attractive and interesting work. It’s sad to think that these polished and exquisite works are largely out of fashion these days. [listen]

Camille Saint-Saëns (c. 1880)

In the 1880s came three of Saint-Saëns’ most enduring works, although one of these, the opera Samson and Delilah, had been gestating since the late 1850s. Samson and Delilah was the first of his twelve operas but the only one still regularly performed today. It was originally conceived as an oratorio in the late 1850s, but he revisited it in the 1860s and again in the 1870s. Parisian theatres were wary of mounting an opera on a Biblical subject, so Liszt, always a good friend and supporter of Saint-Saëns, conducted the premiere in Weimar in 1877. [listen]

The British censor also banned the presentation of Samson and Delilah for decades, owing to its Biblical subject matter, until Queen Alexandra expressed the desire to see it at Covent Garden. The ban was lifted, enabling the British premiere to take place in 1909. Saint-Saëns was in London for the occasion, and you can read the interview he gave to the press at the time here.

Samson and Delilah, final scene (Paris, 1892)

In 1886 two other works, so incredibly different, were produced. One was a grand public statement of the grandest and most public kind, his final symphony, known as “No 3” because it was the third published. It has the nickname of the “Organ Symphony” because of the prominent part played by the organ in this magnificent work. [listen]

Saint-Saëns at the organ

Amazing as it may seem, at exactly the same time as he was writing the organ symphony, Saint-Saëns wrote his other best-loved work, The Carnival of the Animals. The two could not be more different. Carnival of the Animals was deigned for private performance, and despite the pleas of his friends and admirers, he refused to allow it to be published during his lifetime (apart from The Swan) lest it tarnish his reputation as a serious composer. It’s a comic gem, showing Saint-Saëns was able to parody himself as much as Rossini, French folksongs, or anything else. [listen]

From 1896 there was a noticeable change in Saint-Saëns compositional style. By this time he was regarded as one of the old guard, a fossil even, from a world of conventional composition which was even then being swept away. (Debussy’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, for example, that signal of the brave new world of music, was composed in 1894.) Saint-Saëns’ second violin sonata was written in 1896 and it revealed a leaner, more delicately-textured style of music coming from his pen. [listen]

There was no suggestion that the old man would abandon traditional harmony at this stage of his life, but his later works favoured the clarity of instruments like the harp, as did his younger contemporaries Debussy and Ravel. The Fantasie for violin and harp was composed in 1907 when Saint-Saens was 72. [listen]

Camille Saint-Saëns in later life

Shortly after this, Saint-Saëns became the first established composer to write film music, with his score for a silent film called The Assassination of the Duke of Guise in 1908. You can watch the film with the score here.

In the early 20th century Saint-Saëns was also an established playwright, with a number of his comic plays being produced in Paris.

Pissarro: Boulevard Montmartre (1897)

In his later years, Saint-Saëns continued to compose, and he maintained his life-long habit of travelling. He was writing and performing right up until the year of his death, and his very last works (ironically, like Debussy’s late works) include three sonatas - in Saint-Saëns’ case for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, each with piano accompaniment. He died while travelling, succumbing to a bout of pneumonia in Algiers in December 1921. He was 86.

One of the things which attracts me to composers with very long lives is the thought of the music they might have heard. I used to always wonder at the fact that Saint-Saëns could very well have been present at the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913. Amazingly, in researching this I discovered that he actually was, but not for long. The story goes that on hearing the high, challenging notes of the bassoon at the start Saint-Saëns loudly and vociferously walked out. I guess that helped him avoid injury in the ensuing melee.

I have of course barely scratched the surface of Saint-Saëns' enormous output of music, let alone his achievements in fields other than music. Just check out his list of compositions here! His life and legacy will provide a rich source for further exploration.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in July, 2007.

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