A piano prodigy in his youth but an estimable personage in French music as an adult, Camille Saint-Saëns is one of the few great musical names associated with a country better known for its contribution to the visual arts. Saint-Saëns was renowned for his breathtaking skill as a pianist—he was compared to Mozart as a child and Beethoven later—but his compositions for the symphony, ballet, and concerto ensemble are a legacy of his formidable intelligence and talent. They are considered quintessentially French pieces: clear, ordered, and intellectually profound.
Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1835 at home at 3 rue de Jardinet in the Latin Quarter. His father was a clerk at the Ministry of the Interior, but died of consumption before Camille was a year old. Their unusual family name came from their hometown, which had been known once in Latin as Sanctus Sidonius. The death of his father was not the only setback Saint-Saëns suffered at an early age—he was a sickly child, and tuberculosis threatened him as well. He lived with his mother and her aunt, Charlotte Masson, who began teaching him piano at the age of two. A precocious child, he wrote his first work for the instrument at the age of three.
Madame Clemence Saint-Saëns, a devoted mother and great influence upon her son well into his adulthood, soon recognized the necessity for serious lessons, and after just a few years of formal training Camille debuted in his first formal performance. The event took place in 1846 at Paris’s Salle Pleyel. At the close of the performance, the ten-year-old offered to play any of Mozart’s piano concertos by memory. In addition to such startling musical skill and memory, Saint-Saëns proved to be gifted academically. As a teen he excelled in Latin and mathematics at school and loved the intellectual challenges of science and philosophy, as well. He was thirteen when he entered the prestigious Paris Conservatory for further musical training, where he studied the organ and began classes in composition. His Ode a Sainte-Cecile, a homage to the patron saint of music, won him his first competition award in 1852 from a Paris musical society.
Saint-Saëns wrote his first symphony at the age of 18, and it was presented anonymously in a Paris performance two years later. Such accomplishments brought an array of prominent admirers to Saint-Saëns’ recitals, and both Gioacchino Rossini and Louis-Hector Berlioz were counted among his early supporters. In 1853, after finishing his studies at the Conservatory, Saint-Saëns was hired as a church organist at St. Severin in Paris, but in 1857, at the age of just twenty-two, he became organist at the Church of the Madeleine. This was Paris’s most fabled church of the modern era, and it was an illustrious appointment for Saint-Saëns that added much
Born Charles Camille Saint-Saëns, October 9, 1835, in Paris, France, (died December 16, 1921 in Algiers, Algeria); son of Jacques Joseph Victor (a government clerk) and Clemence Franchise Collin Saint-Saëns; married Marie Laure Emile Truffot, 1875 (separated, 1881); two children died in infancy. Education: Studied at the Paris Conservatory, 1848-52.
Made formal debut at Salle Pleyel, Paris, 1846; wrote first symphony at the age of 18 and performed in public two years later; served as church organist, 1853-57; organist at the Madeleine, 1857-76; Ecole Niedermeyer, teacher, 1861-65; co-founder of Societe Nationale de Musique, 1871; wrote first opera, La princesse jaune, 1872.
to his fame. It was at the Eglise Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, as it was known then, that Saint-Saëns met the great Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt, who happened by the church one day and heard Saint-Saëns improvising. Liszt, who influenced a generation of classical pianists, called the young Frenchman the greatest organist in the world.
Early on in his career Saint-Saëns was considered part of a new and modern vanguard of musicians and composers, though later his views would grow considerably orthodox. As a young man, he was a disciple of Richard Wagner, whose early works were met with critical derision. Saint-Saëns defended both Tannhaueser and Lohengrin as important masterpieces, and a century later they remain two of Wagner’s most famous and revered operas. In return, Wagner recognized Saint-Saëns as a gifted keyboardist prodigy. Once Saint-Saëns was visiting Wagner with a mutual friend, and the latter two were speaking German, a language in which Saint-Saëns was not conversationally fluent. Bored, he picked up a manuscript of Wagner’s—the unfinished score for Siegfried —and began playing it prima vista, “on first sight.” Wagner was astounded.
In Paris, Saint-Saëns was a celebrity, known as a talented composer and gifted performer. He also began to win acclaim from abroad, and was invited to play before for Queen Victoria. From 1861 to 1865 he taught at the Ecole Niedermeyer, and influenced several rising young church organists and composers, including Gabriel Faure. He would effect even more decisive influence upon French music as a founder—with Romain Bussine—of the Societe Nationale de Musique in 1871. At the time, German music and German composers dominated much of the classical world, and the Societe’s motto, Ars Gallica, reflected its mission to encourage young French composers and promote their works to the public. The Societe premiered early works of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, among many others.
Saint-Saëns was of course a prolific composer himself. His 1863 Introduction and Rondo capriccioso in A Minor (Op.28) would become a standard performance piece for violinists. Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor was written in just 17 days in 1868, but is nevertheless considered by scholars as exemplary of his talents in piano composition. Like Liszt, Saint-Saëns also began writing symphonic poems. Le Rouet d’Omphale was the first of these, published in 1872, and Danse macabre, dating from 1874 is perhaps the most well known of his symphonic poems. The eerie music is based on poem by Henri Cazalis that finds the specter of death playing a violin for skeletal figures on a dark winter night.
Saint-Saëns lived with his mother well into his twenties, and was famous in Paris for his short stature, odd walk, and lisp, all of which were caricatured in the press. In 1875, nearing forty, he entered into a disastrous marriage with Marie Laure Emile Truffot—a young woman nearly half his age—with whom he had two sons. Tragically both sons died within six weeks of each other—one from an illness and the other after falling out of a window. For the latter death Saint-Saëns blamed his wife, and when they went on vacation together in 1881 he simply disappeared one day. A separation order was enacted, but they never divorced.
During the 1870s Saint-Saëns gained increasing recognition as a composer. His opera Samson et Delilah is the only one of his dozen operas to remain in the performing repertoire a century later. Rather unusual when it debuted in Weimar in 1877 for its biblical themes, it would not be performed in France for another 15 years. Two works that Saint-Saëns wrote in 1886 would define his style. The first, commissioned by the London Royal Philharmonic Society, was his Symphony No. 3 with Organ in C Minor (Op. 78). Written for a large orchestra—It requires three flutes, three trumpets, three kettledrums, as well as organ and piano—Is considered an outstanding example of Saint-Saëns’ style and remains a popular favorite with classical audiences. Part of its finale was even used in the score of the 1995 film Babe.
Another work from 1886, Le carnaval des animaux, was written while on holiday, and Saint-Saëns did not wish that any part of this lighthearted work be associated with his name, for he considered it frivolous. The only part he allowed was a cello piece called “The Swan.” Ironically, it would become one of the most beloved works in his repertoire when it debuted in its entirety a year following his death.
When Madame Clemence Saint-Saëns died in 1888, her son plummeted into a deep depression, and even considered suicide. He began to write less and travel more, taking with him his beloved dogs and a dedicated servant. His visited many exotic locales, and was especially fascinated by life and customs in North Africa and Egypt. His work Africa, dating from 1891, reflects this passion, while Fifth Piano Concerto (1896) is sometimes referred to as the “Egyptian.” During a visit to South America, Saint-Saëns was commissioned to write a national anthem for Uruguay. He also traveled to Russia, and became friends with Peter Tchaikovsky. On a visit to America in 1915, Saint-Saëns was hailed as greatest living French composer. The British sovereign Edward VII made him a commander of the Victorian Order in appreciation of the 1901 coronation march that Saint-Saëns penned.
Saint-Saëns was also the first established composer to score a film, L’assassinat du Duc de Guise, dating from 1908. Despite his visionary talents and legendary energies, he grew increasingly eccentric and cranky in his old age, and was sometimes derided in the press for his strong opinions. He conducted a campaign against the work of Debussy at one point, and called for a suppression of all German music during World War II. But he also wrote prolifically on a variety of non-musical topics, and published literary criticism and essays on art antiquities. He died in Algeria in 1921.
Symphonies 1-5/Jean Martinon, ORTF, EMI Classics, 1989.
Concertos/Ma, Licad, Lin, Maazel, et al, Sony, 1991.
Organ Symphony, Bacchanale, etc./Gunzenhauser, Naxos International, 1992.
Samson et Dalila/Barenboim, Domingo, Deutsche Grammophon, 1992.
Chamber Works/The Banff Camerata, Summit, 1994.
Saint-Saëns Vol. 2/Geoffrey Simon, London Philharmonic, Cala, 1994.
Greatest Hits: Saint-Saëns, Sony, 1995.
Le Carneval des Animaux, Symphony No. 3, Point Classics (Eclipse), 1996.
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3, Danse macabre, etc./Maazel, Sony, 1996.
The Best of Saint-Saëns, Naxos International, 1997.
Cello Concertos, etc./Kliegel, Monnard, et al., Naxos International, 1997.
Africa, Symphony No. 2, Symphony in F Major, Bis, 1997.
Goulding, Phil G., Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and their 1,000 Greatest Works, Fawcett Columbine, 1992.
Nicholas, Jeremy, The Classic FM Guide to Classical Music, Pavilion, 1997.
Sadie, Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 1980.
Soleil, Jean-Jacques, and Guy Lelong, Musical Masterpieces, Chambers, 1991.
Saint-Saëns, (Charles) Camille
OPERAS:Le Timbre d'argent (1864–5);Samson et Dalila (1867–8, 1873–7);La Princesse jaune (1872);Etienne Marcel (1877–8);Henri VIII (1881–2);Proserpine (1886, rev. 1889);Ascanio (1887–8);Phryné (1892);Frédégonde (completion of opera by Giraud, 1894–5);Les Barbares (1900–1);Hélène (1903);L'ancêtre (1905);Déjanire (1919–20).ORCH.:syms: No.1 in E♭ (1853), No.2 in A minor (1859), No.3 in C minor, with org. (1886) (2 other syms., 2nd and 3rd in order of comp., 1852 and 1859, were withdrawn by the composer);sym.-poems: Le Rouet d'Omphale (1871–2);Phaëton (1873), Danse macabre (1874), La Jeunesse d'Hercule (1877);Marche héroïque (1871);Suite Algérienne (1880);Une Nuit à Lisbonne (1880);Jota Aragonesa (1880); Ouverture de fête (1910).INSTR(S). & ORCH.:pf. concs.: No.1 in D (1858), No.2 in G minor (1868), No.3 in E♭ (1869), No.4 in C minor (1875), No.5 in F (1896);vn. concs.: No.1 in A major (1859), No.2 in C (1858, pubd. 1879), No.3 in B minor (1880);vc. concs.: No.1 in A minor (1872), No.2 (1902);Miscellaneous: Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, vn. (1863, pubd. 1870), Romance, vn. (1874), Morceau de Concert, vn. (1880), Caprice Andalou, vn. (1904);Allegro appassionato, pf. (1884);Rapsodie d'Auvergne, pf. (1884);Africa, fantasy, pf. (1891);Tarantelle, fl., cl. (1857);Romance, fl. or vn. (1871);Odelette, fl. (1920);Romance, hn. or vc. (1874);Carnaval des Animaux, 2 pf. and orch. (1886).CHORUS & ORCH.:Mass (1856);Oratorio de Noël (1858);Les Noces de Prométhée (1867);Psalm 18 (1865);Le Déluge (1875);Requiem (1878);La Lyre et l'harpe (1879);Hymne à Victor Hugo (1881);Le Feu céleste (1900);Psalm 150 (1907);The Promised Land (1913);Hail, California (1915);Hymne à la Paix (1919).CHAMBER MUSIC:str. qts. No.1 (1899), No.2 (1918);pf. quintet (1865);pf. trio No.1 in F (1863), No.2 in E minor (1892);pf. qt. (1875);Septet, pf., str., tpt. (1881);vn. sonata No.1 in D minor (1885), No.2 in E♭ (1896);Wedding-Cake, caprice-valse, pf., str. (1886);Havanaise, vn., pf. (or orch.) (1887);vc. sonata No.1 (1872), No.2 (1905);Cavatina, ten. tb., pf. (1915);Elegy No.1, vn., pf. (1915), No.2 (1920);ob. sonata, cl. sonata, bn. sonata (1921).PIANO: 6 Bagatelles (1855);6 Études (1877);6 Études (1899);6 Fugues (1920).2 PIANOS:Variations on a Theme of Beethoven (1874);Polonaise (1886);Caprice Arabe (1884);Caprice héroïque (1898).ORGAN:Bénédiction nuptiale (1859);3 Preludes and Fugues (1894);Marche réligieuse (1897);3 Fantaisies (1857, 1895, 1919).
Romanticist composer, pianist, organist, critic; b. Paris, Oct. 9, 1835 (christened Charles Camille); d. Algiers, Dec. 16, 1921. After sound musical preparation under his great-aunt Charlotte Masson, he studied at the Paris Conservatory and later was organist at the church of Saint-Merry (1853–57) and the Madeleine (1858–77). Thereafter he devoted himself exclusively to composition and worldwide concert tours (including the U.S., and at 81, South America). He composed prolifically in all forms and for virtually all media. He is best known for his symphonic poems, especially Danse macabre and the witty Carnival of the Animals, third symphony (with organ obbligato), opera Samson and Dalila, and A-minor cello concerto. Although an excellent organist, Saint-Saëns left few organ works, and they have been overshadowed by those of such successors as franck and Guilmant. His intimate Christmas Oratorio (1863) is popular with amateur choirs, and Le Déluge (1876) contains effective choral writing. Because of its lack of dramatic action and the powerful choruses in acts 1 and 3, Samson and Dalila might be more effective as a semi-staged oratorio. Saint-Saëns' significance is not primarily as a church composer, but rather as a founder of 19th-century French instrumental music, friend of French musical nationalism (he was a founder of the Societé Nationale de Musique, 1871), roving ambassador for French music, and editor of music by gluck, rameau, and mozart. In his critical writings he strongly opposed wagner, D' indy, and debussy. His music is characterized by impeccable (if "academic") craftsmanship and spirited idiomatic scoring for voices and instruments.
Bibliography: j. chantavoine, Camille Saint-Saëns (Paris 1947). m. cooper, French Music (London 1951). p. c. r. landormy, La Musique française de Franck à Debussy (Paris 1943). m. d. calvocoressi, Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. e. blom 9 v. (5th ed. London 1954) 7:365–370. Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, ed. n. slonimsky (5th, rev. ed. New York 1958) 1400–02. j. harding, "Samson et Dalila [Samson and Delilah ]" in International Dictionary of Opera 2 vols., ed. c. s. larue (Detroit 1993) 1176. j. harding and d. m. fallon, "(Charles) Camille Saint-Saëns" in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 16, ed. s. sadie, (New York 1980) 400–407. e. r. harkins, "The Chamber Music of Camille Saint-Saëns" (Ph.D. diss. New York University, 1976). r. smith, Saint-Saëns and the Organ (Hillsboro 1992). m. stebemann, Camille Saint-Saëns and the French Solo Concerto from 1850 to 1920, trans. a. c. sherwin (Portland 1991). r. stevenson, "Saint-Saëns's Views on the Performance of Early Music," Performance Practice Review 2 (1989), 126–132. s. studd, Saint-Saëns: a Critical Biography (London 1999).
[r. m. longyear]
Charles Camille Saint-Saëns
Charles Camille Saint-Saëns
The French composer Charles Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) wrote music in almost every form and medium, characterized by polish and skill although lacking in ultimate depth or passion.
Born in Paris into a moderately poor family, Camille Saint-Saëns began his musical education by studying piano with his grandaunt. As a child, he exhibited considerable talent in performance and composition. He made his official concert debut as a pianist at the age of 11 and 2 years later was admitted to the Paris Conservatory. He studied composition with Jacques Fromentin Halévy and won prizes in organ in 1849 and 1851. Saint-Saëns's dexterity at this instrument, coupled with his ability to improvise, led in 1853 to his appointment as organist at the church of St-Merry and 5 years later at the Madeleine. From 1861 to 1865 he taught piano at the École Niedermeyer.
In 1871 Saint-Saëns helped found the National Society of Music, an organization devoted to the encouragement of young French composers, but he withdrew 5 years later as his essentially conservative nature had come into conflict with the changing interests of the younger composers. He resigned from his position at the Madeleine in 1877 and spent the following years touring North and South America, England, Russia, and Austria, conducting and performing his own compositions. Highly honored in his lifetime, he was admitted into the French Legion of Honor in 1868, gaining its highest order, the Grand-Croix, in 1913. He was outspoken against the music of Claude Debussy and the French impressionist school.
The compositions of Saint-Saëns include five Piano Concertos, of which the Second (1868) and the Fourth (1875) hold a secure place in the repertoire today. His Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin and orchestra (1870) is better known than his other concertos. Among his symphonic poems the Danse macabre (1874) is probably his most popular composition. Its charm lies not only in its melodic appeal but in the delightful way in which Saint-Saëns imitates Death playing his out-of-tune violin and the rattling of the bones as the skeletons dance. Another composition that reveals his sense of humor is the Carnival of Animals (1866); the lovely cello solo "The Swan" comes from this work. More impressive than these occasional compositions is the Third Symphony (1886), the orchestration of which includes an organ as well as piano. His only operatic success, Samson et Dalila (1877), contains the well-known aria "My heart at thy sweet voice" and a colorful bacchanale.
In addition to his activities as composer and performer, Saint-Saëns was also the general editor of the complete works of Jean Philippe Rameau. The English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, in an oft-quoted statement, called Saint-Saëns the greatest second-rate composer who ever lived.
Considerable biographical information is in Saint-Saëns's autobiographical book, Musical Memories (1913; trans. 1919). James Harding, Saint-Saëns and His Circle (1965), is the most important study of the composer in English. Saint-Saënsisone of the subjects of Donald Brook, Five Great French Composers (1946).
Smith, Rollin, Saint-Saëns and the organ, Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1992. □
Saint-Saëns, Charles Camille