See also:Saint-Saëns MusicAtlas
♩ French composers
♩ Romantic composers
♩ Film music composers
His major works include:
- Symphony No. 1, in E flat major (1855)
- Symphony No. 2, in A minor (1878)
- Symphony No. 3 “The Organ”, op. 78, in C minor (1886)
- Danse Macabre, symphonic poem, op. 40 (1874)
- Le Carnaval des Animaux (1886)
- Concerto No. 1 for piano and orchestra, op. 17, in D major (1858)
- Concerto No. 2 for piano and orchestra, op. 22, in G minor (1868)
- Concerto No. 3 for piano and orchestra, op. 29, in E flat major (1869)
- Concerto No. 4 for piano and orchestra, op. 44, in C minor (1875)
- Concerto No. 5 for piano and orchestra “Egyptian”, op. 103, in F major (1895)
- Concerto No. 1 for violin and orchestra, in A minor (1859)
- Concerto No. 2 for violin and orchestra, in C major (1879)
- Concerto No. 3 for violin and orchestra, in B minor (1880)
- Concerto No. 1 for cello and orchestra, in A minor (1873)
- Concerto No. 2 for cello and orchestra, in D minor (1902)
- Samson et Dalila, opera
Camille Saint-Saëns (09.10.1835 Paris–16.12.1921 Algiers)
(on the occasion of the 85th anniversary of his death)
Composer, pianist, organist, conductor, critic, musicographer, musicologist, promoter of concerts, poet and playwright, Camille Saint-Saëns was born in a modest and honest family. His father, Victor Saint-Saëns (1798–1835), the son of a farmer in Normandy, worked for the Ministry of the Interior in Paris. His mother, Clémence Collin (1809–1888), whose father was a carpenter in Champagne, was painter-aquarellist and lived in Paris with her grandaunt and her husband Mr. Masson, a bookshop owner in Paris. After their wedding, they lived with Mrs. & Mr. Masson in the same apartment. Their son Camille was born in October 1835, his father died in December 1835. Mr. Masson was made bankrupt, lost his bookshop and died of distress as a result. Mrs. Saint-Saëns and her grandaunt were all but penniless. Camille Saint-Saëns’ mother had to sell her watercolours to sustain the family. Mrs. Masson gave piano lessons at home. The child grew up surrounded by the love and care of the two ladies. Mrs. Masson gave Saint-Saëns his first music and piano lessons when he was two and a half years old. Camille loved the piano and showed early the exceptional music and mnemonic abilities. At the age of five he was able to play Mozart’s sonatas by heart and compose his first works. When he was seven-year-old, Mrs. Masson and his mother entrusted him to the remarkable piano teacher Camille Stamaty (1811 Rome–1870 Paris) and to the teacher of composition Pierre Maleden (1800 Limoges–?). Camille Saint-Saëns made his official debut in Paris in 1846 at the Salons Pleyel. He performed Concertos for piano and orchestra by Mozart (number 4) and Beethoven (number 3) as well as works for piano solo by Bach, Händel and Kalkbrenner (1785–1849). Both the public and the music critics were amazed at the extraordinary aptitude of this ten-year-old prodigy and greeted his remarkable feat. The Paris correspondent of the “Boston Musical Gazette” wrote: “There is a boy in Paris, named Saint-Saëns, and only ten and a half years old, who plays the music of Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and the more modern masters, without any book before him”. The next year, the boy played at the Court and received compliments, expressions of admiration and a royal fee from the Princess d’Orléans.
Success did not elate the prodigy who remained modest and continued studying piano, organ, composition, and also Latin, Greek, French, archeology, astronomy, geometry and other sciences with private teachers. Later, he studied also at the Paris Conservatoire the organ under Professor François Benoist (1794–1878) and composition under Professor Fromenthal Halévy (1799–1862).
His overture “Spartacus” won the first prize at a competition organized by the Society Sainte Cécile in Bordeaux. His symphony “Urbs Roma” won the first prize at the same competition in Bordeaux in 1857. His cantata “Les noces de Prométhée” won the Grand-Prix at a competition organized in Paris in 1867 on the occasion of the “Grande fête internationale du travail et de l’industrie.” Composers Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868), Daniel François Esprit Auber (1782–1871), Hector Berlioz (1803–1869), Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) and Charles Gounod (1818–1893) were members of the jury. In 1871, Camille Saint-Saëns played at the court of Queen Victoria in London. In 1893 he obtained the doctorate “honoris causa” of the University of Cambridge, and in 1907 the doctorate “honoris causa” of the University of Oxford, as well as practically every other French honour and decoration.
Still very young, Camille Saint-Saëns enriched and soon became famous all over Europe, North America, South America, North Africa, Asia and the Far East. He visited Australia as well, where he outlined his most popular work “Carnaval des animaux”.
He gave up giving piano recitals and concerts, but was appointed first organist at the Church Saint Merri, then at La Madeleine in Paris.¹ Saint-Saëns taught at the Niedermeyer School of Music. The composer Gabriel Fauré was his pupil as well as the famous Polish pianist Léopold Godowsky (1870–1938).
Camille Saint-Saëns fell in love with Augusta Holmès (1847 Paris–1903 Paris), a beautiful pianist and composer, whose only opera was performed thirteen times at the Paris Opera House, as well as at Covent Garden Opera in London, the Dublin Opera House and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. But the Égérie of French musicians, poets, writers and painters twice refused to marry him. Eventually he married in 1875 Marie Truffot (16.04.1855 Cateau–30.01.1950 Bordeaux), twenty years his junior, a daughter of an industrialist in Northern France. They had two sons, André and Jean-François. Both died in 1878. The loss of two sons affected him both physically and mentally. He abandoned his young wife and took refuge with his mother and Mrs. Masson. They separated, but never divorced. Marie Truffot died at a very old age in Bordeaux.
In 1870, Camille Saint-Saëns participated in the French–Prussian war. After the defeat of the French army at Sedan, he founded in the “Société nationale de musique” in 1871 with the composers Romain Bussine (1830–1899), Alexis de Castillon (1838–1873), Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924), César Franck (1822–1890), Edouard Lalo (1823–1892) and Henri Duparc (1848–1933). His patriotism degenerated into xenophobia. He abandoned the “Société nationale de musique” in 1886, because they played works by foreign composers! He forgot that his work “Samson et Dalila”, which was twice refused by the Paris Opera, but was premiered in Germany, at Weimar, in 1877 thanks to Franz Liszt, and then performed at the Hamburg Opera, where he conducted it three times. Saint-Saëns started criticizing ignobly Richard Wagner (1813–1883) and Robert Schumann (1810–1856) even although those German composers had influenced his musical thoughts.
Camille Saint-Saëns left 13 operas, all of them completely forgotten, except the scenic oratorio “Samson et Dalila”;
5 symphonies (only the third one, with organ, dedicated to Franz Liszt, survived);
symphonic poems inspired by the aesthetics of Franz Liszt (only the “Danse macabre”, more humoristic than “macabre” features occasionally in programmes of foreign orchestras);
5 concertos for piano and orchestra (the nr. 2 is occasionally performed, the nr. 4 survived thanks to the phenomenal recording by the great Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes)² and other works for piano and orchestra;
3 concertos for violin and orchestra (very seldom performed)
2 concertos for cello and orchestra;
3 fantasies and 2 books of preludes and fugues for organ;
about a hundred songs (minor works, mostly all forgotten);
numerous piano pieces (hardly ever played by concert pianists and rejected by concertgoers);
numerous transcriptions (very well worked, especially those of works by Bach);
one Requiem, one Christmas Oratorio, chamber music works etc.
(Hundred sixty nine works with opus numbers and over twenty compositions without opus numbers).
In his literary work “Harmonie et Mélodie” Saint-Saëns stated: “I am an eclectic”. Influences of Bach (1685–1750), Gluck (1714–1787), Beethoven (1770–1827), Chopin (1810–1849), Schumann (1810–1856), Liszt (1811–1886), Verdi (1813–1901), Wagner (1813–1883), Gounod (1818–1893), Jules Massenet (1842–1912), whom he hated publicly and secretly admired, and, maybe, of Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880) as in the third act of “Samson et Dalila”, are visible in his works, but there are not followed by psychological comments of a real creative nature. Their ideas, music thoughts and aesthetic principles are applied on the neat and limpid forms of all works of Camille Saint-Saëns, which always dominate the content, deprived of emotional faculties and original motivations. His works appear colourless and frigid, without the thrilling elements of an authentic creative power.³ His French critics spoke of “bad music, well written”, although some “patriots” considered him, lamentably, French Beethoven and adored his music, hollow, but agreeable and well expressed in an accessible and understanding idiom, which befitted the public of his time.
Ensconced in his neoclassical mentality, Camille Saint-Saëns ignored all progressive post-romantic tendencies. The art of Claude Debussy (1862–1918) did not touch him and he criticized Debussy’s masterpieces idiotically and dishonestly. He was totally oblivious of Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), Bela Bartok (1881–1945), Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951) and their original musical thoughts. Gabriel Fauré was his pupil, but not at all his disciple. He adopted the elegance, limpidness and clarity of the penmanship of his master, but his master had no emotional richness, depth of expression, grandeur of innate faculties and nobleness of his pupil.
Richard Wagner met Saint-Saëns as a young man and much later stated: “With an unparalleled sureness and velocity of glimpse on even the most complicated orchestral score, this young man combined a not less extraordinary memory. He was not only able to play my scores, including Tristan, by heart, but could also reproduce their several parts, be they principal or minor themes. He did that with such a precision, that one might easily have thought he had the actual music before his eyes. I afterwards learned that this amazing receptivity for all technical material of a work was not accompanied by any corresponding intensity of creative power; so, when he tried to set up as a composer I quite lost sight of him in the course of time.”
The great music intelligence of Camille Saint-Saëns became sterile, because of lack of sensibility and permanent absence of impulses of a creative inspiration.
Elegant and brilliant pages of his piano concertos did attract virtuosos of the XIX Century: Hans von Bülow (1830–1894), Ignace Paderewski (1860–1941), Léopold Godowsky (1870–1938), Guiomar Novaes 1896–1979). In the XX Century Jeanne-Marie Darré (1905–1998), who played five concertos during the same concert at the age of 20 and whose performances and a London made recording of his Toccata became legendary, Monique de la Bruchollerie (1915–1972), Emil Guilels (1916–1985) and many other pianists used to perform them occasionally.
According to the English Review “Gramophone”, the remarkable contemporary pianists Stephen Hough (1961) and Pascal Rogé (1951) recorded all his production for piano and orchestra.
The great conductor Zubin Mehta (1936) had regard for his symphonies.
The immense popularity of Camille Saint-Saëns started to wane after his death in Algiers in 1921, but his name remains in the Pantheon of musicians.
¹ The actual tone of this prodigy became eventually dry and colourless according to his colleagues. He heard many international pianists in Paris and understood that the piano performance on the concert stage was not his mission, despite his good and precise technique. But all his contemporaries recognized that Saint-Saëns has been an extraordinary organist and improviser, the greatest of his time according to Franz Liszt, the greatest in the world according to Anton Rubinstein (1830-1894).
² See our essay “Guiomar Novaes, uma grande conquistadora brasileira” in Jornal de Notícias, O Porto, of 18th January 2006.
³ “Where the form dominates, the sentiment disappears.” Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) in his novel “Ursule Mirouët” (first chapter).
His musical life was very successful early in life and he never had to struggle before arriving at recognition. At the age of 22 he was already an established musician: the organist at L’Église de la Madeleine, the composer of two symphonies and having won an important prize. Berlioz called him "one of the greatest musicians of our epoch," and Anton Rubenstein said that he was the greatest organist in the world.
He showed his outstanding talent in many different ways. While only four-and-a-half years old, he made an appearance performing on piano the Beethoven sonata for violin and piano. He also took a score of a Grétry opera and read it through at sight. In his sixth year he read through the full orchestral score of Mozart’s Don Giovanni as if it were a fairy tale. Saint-Saëns once wrote: "The artist who does not feel completely satisfied by elegant lines, by harmonious colors, and by a beautiful succession of chords does not understand the art of music."
As prolific he was as a composer, he also studied astronomy, physics, and natural history. He produced poetry and a play and he also wrote critical essays.
(contribution by Viacheslav Slavinsky <svooisoft.ru>)
- United Kingdom, Gloucester, Cathedral — 11 Sep 1913