Charles Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris on 9 October, 1835. His father, a clerk in the French government service, died of tuberculosis two months later, and his upbringing was shared between his mother, Clémence, and a great-aunt who began to teach him piano from an early age. His development was rapid, and both Stamaty and Boëly were summoned to the Saint-Saëns household to further his precocious talent.
In 1848, he entered the Paris Conservatoire studying organ under Benoist, and composition under Halévy. Although he failed to win the Prix de Rome in 1851, he gained the admiration of such luminaries as Schumann, Berlioz, Gounod, and particularly Liszt whom he met in 1852. They remained close friends and allies for many years.
In 1853, he accepted the post of organist at the Church of Saint-Merry, moving on to La Madeleine in 1857, a post that he held until 1876. These positions were both prestigious and well paid, assuring Saint-Saëns of financial security. He also taught piano at l'école Niedermeyer from 1861 to 1865 where Gabriel Fauré was one of his pupils.
In 1871, Saint-Saëns and Romain Bussine founded the Société Nationale de Musique as a forum for promoting contemporary French Chamber and Orchestral music. After his isolated upbringing and the splendid isolation of the organ seat at La Madeleine, this sudden flurry of social activity was a new departure for Saint-Saëns. His mother's taut control was briefly loosened and in 1875 he married 19-year-old Marie-Laure Truffot. Their union was not a success. In 1878 their two sons died within six weeks of each other, one from illness the other in falling from a fourth floor window. Saint-Saëns deserted his young wife in 1881 citing her carelessness as the cause of the tragedies.
During a holiday with family and friends in 1886, Saint-Saëns produced a highly satirical musical diversion for the general amusement of the party. Le Carnaval des Animaux continues to amuse children of all ages with its whimsy of raucous roosters and braying donkeys and so forth. His audience at the time would also have detected that Berlioz' light and ethereal Ballet of the Sylphs, with a deft change of register, had become a waltzing elephant. The Can-can had retired from the Folies Bergère and at a more sedate pace ushered through some seemingly arthritic tortoises, and an aria from Rossini's Barber of Seville had been impishly set amongst the fossils.
Saint-Saëns was the daunting and somewhat messianic figurehead of a flourishing French school of composers that came into their own in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, and forbade publication of the piece during his lifetime1. It would never do for the general public to catch a glimpse of any private lack of seriousness that may lie behind his austere public façade.
An argument over the performance of foreign works led to Saint Saëns and Bussine resigning the joint presidency of the Societe Nationale de Musique in 1886. Saint-Saëns's withdrawal from social contact was made the more complete by the death of his mother in 1888. The effect was profound and Saint-Saëns took to a nomadic existence. He travelled extensively, performing and occasionally composing throughout Europe, East Asia, South America, and North Africa.
Saint-Saëns died of pneumonia in Algiers on 16 December, 1921, his body being returned to Paris for a state funeral. He was finally laid to rest in Montparnasse cemetery.
Saint-Saëns composed prolifically, especially during his association with the Société Nationale de Musique. Being both an accomplished melodist and orchestrator, he was comfortable with all scales of composition from solo line and chamber ensemble to symphony and grand opera. The following are worthy of further investigation.
- Samson et Dalila (1877)
- Etienne Marcel (1879)
- Henry VIII (1883)
- Ascanio (1890)
- Symphony No.1 (1853)
- Symphony No.2 (1859)
- Symphony No.3 'Organ' (1886)
- Symphonic Poem 'Le Rouet d'Omphale' (1871)
- Symphonic Poem 'Danse Macabre' (1874)
- Suite Algérienne (1880)
- Piano Concerto No.2 (1868)
- Piano Concerto No.5 'Egyptian' (1896)
- Violin Concerto No.3
- Violoncello Concerto No.1 (1872)
- Violoncello Concerto No.2 (1902)
- Violin Sonata No.1
- Allegro appassionata for Violoncello (1875)
- Carnaval des Animaux (1886)
For most of the 19th Century, serious orchestral music was deeply unpopular in France. However, there was a great vogue for virtuoso instrumental performers. While Schumann and Wagner were generally despised, Liszt, Paganini, and Chopin were welcome in Paris, and a certain amount of Germanic complexity tolerated providing that the performance was sparkling. It was within this milieu that Saint-Saëns was able to express himself.
The Virtuoso Performer
Approximately 30 minutes survives in recording of Saint-Saëns performing his own pianoforte work. Most revealing is the cadenza to his 2nd Concerto, where techniques of touch and phrasing are heard that harks back to the pre-Romantic times of Kalkbrenner. It is extraordinary that a pianist who survived the Great War should employ an approach to performance that pre-dated Chopin.
Though he excelled as a pianist, particularly in his disciplined interpretation of Mozart, he was regarded as an even better organist. Liszt proclaimed him the best, and coming from arguably the greatest ever pianist, that was high praise indeed.
Most musical genres had become entirely secular by the mid-19th century, to the extent that biblical subjects had become taboo on the Parisian stage. But the magnificent Gothic cathedrals of Paris paid handsomely for the finest, most elaborate church organs and the finest organists to play them. The genre had progressed somewhat since Buxtehude's day, though the religiously conservative setting imposed a certain reverential discipline on the school that tended to restrict Romantic influence. Improvisational virtuosity was encouraged however, perhaps being seen as evidence of divine inspiration. The French school had long since eclipsed all others and by the 1870s had reached its zenith. At Saint-Clotilde sat César Franck (1822 - 1890), Charle-Marie Widor (1845 - 1937) was recently installed at Saint-Sulpice, and revered above all, Camille Saint-Saëns thundered out his Sunday improvisations at La Madeleine. Perched in their lofty seats the Parisian organists were other-worldly, remote figures who held audiences spell-bound with their dazzling virtuosity. All three were soon to become respected composers, but it was within these sacred settings that their reputations were formed.
In 1898, Saint-Saëns himself cited Rameau, Méhul, and Hérold as his most revered predecessors. Certainly his work is marked by an elegance of line and form that stems directly from the French Classical tradition. He could not at that stage of his life admit to Teutonic influences, but his early admiration of Wagner had soon evaporated and the voice of Mendelssohn, detectable in some of his stronger timbres, is no more than a hollow echo. At this level, his work exhibits fine melodic line, charm, and superb orchestration, though there was also a certain dry austerity that has led to much critical demonisation over the years.
The one contemporary influence he did adopt was that of his great friend Liszt. Superficially, they make very strange bedfellows: one, so introverted, emotionally restrained and conservative, whilst the other is the most radical and extrovert of all the Romantics. They certainly could relate at the level of fellow virtuosi, and perhaps Saint-Saëns discovered Liszt's harmonic 'indiscretions' helpful in his performance technique. Whatever the reason, he could not have chosen a better influence at the time, and his best works are enlivened with a little Hungarian 'paprika'.
Saint-Saëns could never have produced the glorious cacophony of Mazeppa. However, the rollicking bombast of Liszt's symphonic poem, and one of the most bewitching melodies in the symphonic repertoire, are to be found in the 'Organ' symphony, an orchestral tour-de-force where elegance and emotional depth are perfectly balanced. He found his greatest depth of expression in writing for the 'cello. The passion of his Allegro appassionata perhaps even outshone by the tempestuous opening movement of the 1st Concerto.
It is debatable whether Saint-Saëns led, or was led by, the Nationalist school that adopted him as their leader in 1871. Ironically, many of his colleagues had had their work suppressed in their own country for being too 'Germanic' in style. The iconic position of Saint-Saëns at La Madeleine, and his classical purity made him the ideal figurehead for a Nationalist agenda, but you suspect that the Société Nationale de Musique was a flag of convenience for some. Ultimately, only Fauré remained close.
Saint-Saëns brought little to the repertoire by way of innovation and few would cite his compositions as being particularly influential. Yet his disciplined adherence to the classical form, long the object of critical scorn, became a beacon for later composers struggling to cope with the stylistic freedom that had developed prior to the Great War. While Beethoven needed little harmonic invention beyond secondary dominants to serve his needs, within a century, Stravinski, Schöenberg, and Prokofiev were bombarding the public with Le Sacré du Printemps, Pierrot Lunaire, and the Scythian Suite respectively. All great and important works, but severely flawed in shape and structure. Artists with real imagination were finding it increasingly difficult to write with clarity in an idiom running short of rules. Their solution was to impose upon themselves the straightjacket of form that Saint-Saëns had worn throughout his life. Among French composers, Maurice Ravel acknowledged him as a model influence in this respect. Saint-Saëns had been rather rude about Stravinski's modernism and perhaps the two were on less than intimate terms. But in Octet, one of the seminal works of Neoclassicism, Stravinski revealed the inherent strength of Saint-Saëns' approach. The piece is a treasure box of miniaturisation with great elegance, shape and clarity. The simple lines cleverly hide the depth and invention. Key and chord are often subtly yet stubbornly resistant to analysis.
As with Bach before, and Hindemith later, Saint-Saëns weathered unmoved the fashions of his age, sphinx-like and singular. In doing so, his greatest legacy was to pass a thread uncontaminated by 19th century sentimentality from the Classical era through to the Neoclassical.