Charles Camille Saint-Saëns (/ʃaʁl ka.mij sɛ̃.sɑ̃s/) (October 9, 1835 – December 16, 1921) was a French composer and performer. He composed over 300 works comprised of operas, symphonies, oratorios, cantatas, and piano concertos. His long life spanned nearly the entire duration of the Romantic period of music. He was part of the heyday of the movement and witnessed its death and the dawn of 20th-century music. He was the first musician to compose for the cinema.
Camille Saint-Saëns's sensitive renderings of using instruments to tell a story or suggestively act out a scene helped to glorify the concept of "program music." He is best known for his orchestral work The Carnival of the Animals. Program music was very aligned with poetry and literature where artists hoped for a "unification of the arts." It is said that poets wanted poetry to be music, and musicians wanted their music to be poetry.
Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris to a government clerk who died only three months after his son's birth. His mother, Clémence, sought the aid of her aunt, Charlotte Masson, who moved in and introduced Camille to the piano. One of the most talented musical child prodigies of all time, he had absolute pitch (perfect pitch) and began piano lessons with his great-aunt at two years old, then almost immediately began composing. His first composition, a little piece for the piano dated March 22, 1839, is now kept in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Saint-Saëns' precociousness was not limited to music; he could read and write by the time he was three, and had learned Latin four years later.
His first piano recital was given at age five, when he accompanied a Beethoven violin sonata. He went on to begin in-depth study of the full score of Don Giovanni. In 1842, Saint-Saëns began piano lessons with Camille-Marie Stamaty, a pupil of Friedrich Kalkbrenner, who had his students play the piano while resting their forearms on a bar situated in front of the keyboard, so that all the pianist's power came from the hand and fingers and not the arms. At ten years of age, Saint-Saëns gave his debut public recital at the Salle Ignaz Pleyel pianos, playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat major (Köchel-Verzeichnis - K. 450), and various pieces by Händel, Kalkbrenner, Hummel, and Bach. As an encore, Saint-Saëns offered to play any of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas from memory. Word of this incredible concert spread across Europe and even to the United States, appearing in a Boston, Massachusetts newspaper.
In the late 1840s, Saint-Saëns entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied organ and composition, the latter under Fromental Halévy (Jacques Halévy). Saint-Saëns won many top prizes (though he failed to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in both 1852 and 1864). The reputation these awards garnered him resulted in his introduction to Franz Liszt, who became one of his closest friends. At the age of 16, Saint-Saëns wrote his first symphony; his second, published as "Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major," was performed in 1853 to the astonishment of many critics and fellow-composers.Hector Berlioz, who became one of Saint-Saëns' good friends, famously commented, "Il sait tout, mais il manque d'inexpérience" ("He knows everything, but lacks inexperience").
For income, Saint-Saëns worked playing the organ at various churches in Paris. In 1857, he replaced Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wely at the eminent position of organist at the Église de la Madeleine, which he kept until 1877. His weekly improvisations stunned the Parisian public and earned Liszt's 1866 observation that Saint-Saëns was the greatest organist in the world.
From 1861 to 1865, Saint-Saëns held his only teaching position as professor of piano at the École Niedermeyer, where he raised eyebrows by including contemporary music—Liszt, Gounod, Schumann, Berlioz, and Wagner—along with the school's otherwise conservative curriculum of Bach and Mozart. His most successful students at the Niedermeyer were André Messager and Gabriel Fauré, who was Saint-Saëns's favorite pupil and soon his closest friend.
Saint-Saëns was a multi-faceted intellectual. From an early age, he studied geology, archaeology, botany, and lepidoptery. He was an expert at mathematics. Later, in addition to composing, performing, and writing musical criticism, he held discussions with Europe's finest scientists and wrote scholarly articles on acoustics, occult sciences, Roman theatre decoration, and ancient instruments. He wrote a philosophical work, Problèmes et Mystères, which spoke of science and art replacing religion; Saint-Saëns's pessimistic and atheistic ideas foreshadowed Existentialism. Other literary achievements included Rimes familières, a volume of poetry, and La Crampe des écrivains, a successful farcical play. He was also a member of the Astronomical Society of France; he gave lectures on mirages, had a telescope made to his own specifications, and even planned concerts to correspond to astronomical events such as solar eclipses.
In 1870, Saint-Saëns was conscripted into the National Guard to fight in the Franco-Prussian War, which, though over in barely six months, left an indelible mark on the composer. In 1871, he co-founded (with Romain Bussine) the Société Nationale de Musique in order to promote a new and specifically French music. After the fall of the Paris Commune] the Society premiered works by members like Fauré, César Franck, Édouard Lalo, and Saint-Saëns himself, who served as the society's co-president. In this way, Saint-Saëns became a powerful figure in shaping the future of French music.
In 1875, Saint-Saëns married Marie-Laure Truffot and they had two children, André and Jean-François, who died within six weeks of each other in 1878. Saint-Saëns left his wife three years later. The two never divorced, but lived the rest of their lives apart from one another.
1886 brought two of Saint-Saëns's most renowned compositions: The Carnival of the Animals (Le Carnaval des Animaux) and his Symphony No. 3, dedicated to Franz Liszt, who had died that year. That same year, however, Vincent d'Indy and his allies had Saint-Saëns removed from the Société Nationale de Musique. Two years later, Saint-Saëns's mother died, driving the mourning composer away from France to the Canary Islands under the alias "Sannois." Over the next several years he travelled the world, visiting exotic locations in Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. Saint-Saëns chronicled his travels in many popular books written under the alias "Sannois."
Saint-Saëns continued to write on musical, scientific and historical topics, travelling frequently before spending his last years in Algiers, Algeria. In recognition of his accomplishments, the government of France awarded him the Legion of Honour.
Camille Saint-Saëns died of pneumonia on December 16, 1921 at the Hôtel de l'Oasis in Algiers. His body was brought back to Paris for a state funeral at Église de la Madeleine and was buried at the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.
Relationships with other composers
Saint-Saëns was either friend or enemy to Europe's most distinguished musicians. He stayed close to Franz Liszt and maintained a fast friendship with his pupil Gabriel Fauré. But despite his strong advocacy of French music, Saint-Saëns openly despised many of his fellow-composers in France such as Franck, d'Indy, and Jules Massenet. Saint-Saëns also hated the music of Claude Debussy; he is reported to have told Pierre Lalo (music critic, son of composer Édouard Lalo), "I have stayed in Paris to speak ill of the opera Pelléas et Mélisande. The personal animosity was mutual; Debussy quipped: "I have a horror of sentimentality, and I cannot forget that its name is Saint-Saëns." On other occasions, however, Debussy acknowledged an admiration for Saint-Saëns' musical talents.
Saint-Saëns had been an early champion of Richard Wagner's music in France, teaching his pieces during his tenure at the École Niedermeyer and premiering the March from Tannhäuser. He had stunned even Wagner himself when he sight-read the entire orchestral scores of the operas Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, and Siegfried, prompting Hans von Bülow to call him "the greatest musical mind" of the era. However, despite admitting appreciation for the power of Wagner's work, Saint-Saëns defiantly stated that he was not an aficionado. In 1886, Saint-Saëns was punished for some particularly harsh and anti-German comments on the Paris production of Lohengrin by losing engagements and receiving negative reviews throughout Germany. Later, after World War I, Saint-Saëns angered both French and Germans with his inflammatory articles entitled Germanophilie, which ruthlessly attacked Wagner.
On May 29, 1913, Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) (The Rite of Spring), allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bass.
Saint-Saëns began his musical career as a musical pioneer, introducing France to the symphonic poem and championing the radical works of Liszt and Wagner at a time when Bach and Mozart were the norms. He had been the embodiment of artistic modernity during the 1850s and 1860s, but soon transformed himself into a crusty and somewhat bitter reactionary. By the dawn of the twentieth century, Saint-Saëns was an ultra-conservative, fighting the influence of Debussy and Richard Strauss. This is hardly surprising—Saint-Saëns' career began while Chopin and Mendelssohn were in their prime, and ended at the commencement of the Jazz Age; but his crotchety image endured for years after his death.
As a composer, Saint-Saëns has always bordered on obscurity, often criticized for his refusal to embrace romanticism and at the same time, rather paradoxically, for his adherence to the conventions of ninteenth century musical language. He is sometimes disparagingly referred to as "the greatest second-rate composer who ever lived" or "the greatest composer who was not a genius." He is remembered chiefly for a limited number of works, including "The Carnival of the Animals (Le Carnaval des Animaux)" which was not published in full until after his death; the opera "Samson and Delilah," the Symphony No. 3; the second, fourth and fifth piano concertos; the third violin concerto; the first cello concerto; and the first violin sonata.
"What gives Sebastian Bach and Mozart a place apart is that these two great expressive composers never sacrificed form to expression. As high as their expression may soar, their musical form remains supreme and all-sufficient," he wrote in a letter to Camille Bellaigire, 1907.
Saint-Saëns the composer was widely regarded by his contemporaries and some later critics as writing music that is elegant and technically flawless, but occasionally dry, uninspired, and lacking emotion. His works have been called logical and clean, polished, professional, and never excessive. His concertos and many of his chamber music works are both technically difficult and transparent, requiring the skills of a virtuoso. The later chamber music pieces, such as the second violin sonata, the second cello sonata, and the second piano trio, are less accessible to a listener than earlier pieces in the same form. They were composed and performed when Saint-Saëns was already slipping in popularity and, as a result, they are little known. They show a willingness to experiment with more progressive musical language and to abandon lyricism and charm for more profound expression.
The piano music, while not as deep or as challenging as that of some of his contemporaries, occupies the stylistic ground between Liszt and Ravel. At times brilliant, transparent and idiomatic, the music for two pianos music includes the Variations on a Theme by Beethoven, the Scherzo, a palindromic piece that uses a blend of modern tonalities and conventional gestures, and the Caprice Arabe, a rhythmically-inventive fantasy that pays homage to the music of northern Africa. Although Saint-Saëns was considered old-fashioned in later life, he explored many new forms and reinvigorated some older ones. His compositional approach was inspired by French classicism, which makes him an important forerunner of the neoclassicism of Ravel and others.
In performance, Saint-Saëns is said to have been "unequalled on the organ," and rivaled only by a few on the piano. Liszt is reported to have thought that he and Saint-Saëns were the two best pianists in Europe. However, Saint-Saëns's concert style was restrained, subtle, and cool; he sat unmoving at the piano. His playing was marked by extraordinarily even scales and passagework, great speed, and aristocratic refinement. The recordings he left at the end of his life give glimpses of these traits. He was often charged with being unemotional and business-like, less memorable than other more charismatic performers. He was probably the first pianist to publicly perform a cycle of all the Mozart piano concertos. In some cases these influenced his own piano concertos; for example, the first movement of his fourth piano concerto, in C Minor, strongly resembles the last movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24, which is in the same key. In turn, his own concertos appear to have influenced those of Sergei Rachmaninoff and other later Romantic composers. Throughout his life, Saint-Saëns continued to play with the technique taught to him by Stamaty, using the strength of the hand rather than the arm. Claudio Arrau never forgot the ease with which Saint-Saëns played—he cited Chopin's fourth Scherzo as an example.
Saint-Saëns' early start and his 86 years provided him with time to write hundreds of compositions; during his long career, he wrote many dramatic works, including four symphonic poems, and 13 operas, of which Samson and Delilah and the symphonic poem Danse Macabre are among his most famous. In all, he composed over 300 works and was the first major composer to write music specifically for the cinema, for Henri Lavedan's film L'Assassinat du Henry I, Duke of Guise (Duc de Guise).
Saint-Saëns wrote five symphonies, although only three of these are numbered. He withdrew the first, written for a Mozartian-scale orchestra, and the third, a competition piece. His symphonies are a significant contribution to the genre during a period when the French symphonic tradition was otherwise in decline. Saint-Saëns also contributed voluminously to the French concertante literature; he wrote five piano concertos, three violin concertos, two cello concertos, and about 20 smaller concertante works for soloist and orchestra, including a colorfully orchestrated piano fantasy Africa, the Havanaise and the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso for violin and orchestra; and the Morceau de Concert for harp and orchestra. Of the concertos, the Piano Concerto No. 2, Piano Concerto No. 4 and Piano Concerto No. 5, the Violin Concerto No. 3, and the Cello Concerto No. 1 remain popular. Indeed, Saint-Saëns's Concerto in G minor is one of the most popular virtuoso piano concertos of all time, but when Saint-Saëns heard Harold Bauer play it, he said, "That is very good, but please remember that I wrote five piano concertos: FIVE."
In 1886 he wrote his final symphony, the Symphony No. 3, "avec orgue" ("with organ"), one of his best-known works. Aided by the monumental symphonic organs built in France by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, at that time the world's foremost organ builder, this work demonstrates the spirit of "gigantism" and the confidence of France at the end of the ninteenth century, a period that produced also the Eiffel Tower, the Exposition Universelle (1889) in Paris, and the Belle Époque. The confident Maestoso fourth movement perhaps reflects the confidence of Europe in its technology, its science, its "age of reason." He was frequently named as "the most German of all the French composers," perhaps due to his use of counterpoint.
In 1886, Saint-Saëns completed The Carnival of the Animals (Le Carnaval des Animaux), which was first performed on March 9. Despite the work's great popularity today, Saint-Saëns forbade complete performances of it shortly after its première, allowing only one movement, "Le Cygne" (The Swan), a piece for cello and two pianos, to be published in his lifetime. The Carnival was written as a musical jest, and Saint-Saëns believed it would damage his reputation as a serious composer. In fact, since its posthumous publication, this work's imagination and musical brilliance have impressed both ordinary listeners and music critics.
Saint-Saëns also wrote six preludes and fugues for organ, three in op. 99 and three in op. 109, the most performed of which is the Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, op. 99, no. 3.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Flynn, Timothy. NetLibrary, Inc., Camille Saint-Saens: a guide to research, NY: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0203494911
- Rees, Brian. Camille Saint-Saens: a life, London: Chatto & Windus, 1999. ISBN 1856197735
- Schonberg, Harold C. The Lives of the Great Composers, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997. ISBN 0393038572
- Stegemann, Michael. Camille Saint-Saëns and the Franch Solo Concerto from 1850 to 1920, Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1991. ISBN 0931340357
All links retrieved November 25, 2023.
- Works by Camille Saint-Saëns. Project Gutenberg
- Free Public Domain Sheet Music by Saint-Saëns at IMSLP
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