Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (French pronunciation: [ʃaʁl kamij sɛ̃sɑ̃s]) (9 October 1835 – 16 December 1921) was a French Late-Romantic composer, organist, conductor, and pianist, known especially for The Carnival of the Animals, Danse macabre, Samson and Delilah, Piano Concerto No. 2, Havanaise, Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, and his Symphony No. 3 (Organ Symphony).
Saint-Saëns was born in Paris, France on 9 October 1835. His father, a government clerk, died three months after his birth. He was raised by his mother, Clémence, with the assistance of her aunt, Charlotte Masson, who moved in. Masson introduced Saint-Saëns to the piano, and began giving him lessons on the instrument. At about this time, age two, Saint-Saëns was found to possess perfect pitch. His first composition, a little piece for the piano dated 22 March 1839, is now kept in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Saint-Saëns's precociousness was not limited to music. He learned to read and write by age three, and had some mastery of Latin by the age of seven. His first public concert appearance occurred when he was five years old, 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 Pleyel, with a performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat major (K. 450), and various pieces by Handel, Kalkbrenner, Hummel, and Bach. As an encore, Saint-Saëns offered to play any of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas from memory. Word of this incredible concert spread across Europe, and as far as the United States with an article in a Boston newspaper.
He then studied composition under Fromental Halévy at the Conservatoire de Paris. Saint-Saëns won many top prizes and gained a reputation that resulted in his introduction to Franz Liszt, who would become one of his closest friends. At the age of sixteen, 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 also became a good friend, famously remarked, Il sait tout, mais il manque d'inexpérience ("He knows everything, but lacks inexperience").
For income, Saint-Saëns played the organ at various churches in Paris, with his first appointment being at the Saint-Merri in the Beaubourg area. In 1857, he replaced 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. He also composed a famous piece called Danse Macabre at this time.
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 favourite 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, the Franco-Prussian War, despite being over in barely six months, left an indelible mark on the composer. He was relieved from fighting duty as one of the favourites of a relative of emperor Napoleon III, but fled nonetheless to London for several months when the Paris Commune broke out in the besieged Paris of winter 1871, his fame and societal status posing a threat to his survival. In the same year, 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 such as 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.
Camille Saint-Saëns, 1915.
In 1886 Saint-Saëns debuted two of his most renowned compositions: The Carnival of the Animals and Symphony No. 3, dedicated to Franz Liszt, who 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 around the world, visiting exotic locations in Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. Saint-Saëns chronicled his travels in many popular books using his nom de plume, Sannois.
In 1908, he had the distinction of being the first celebrated composer to write a musical score to a motion picture, The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (L'assassinat du duc de Guise), directed by Charles Le Bargy and André Calmettes, adapted by Henri Lavedan, featuring actors of the Comédie Française. It was 18 minutes long, a considerable run time for the day.
In 1915, Saint-Saëns traveled to San Francisco, California and guest conducted the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, one of two world's fairs celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal.
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 Légion d'honneur.
Saint-Saëns died of pneumonia on 16 December 1921 at the Hôtel de l'Oasis in Algiers. His body was repatriated to Paris, honoured by state funeral at La Madeleine, and interred at Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.
Relationships with other composers
Saint-Saëns was either friend or enemy to some of Europe's most distinguished musicians. He stayed close to Franz Liszt and maintained a fast friendship with his pupil Gabriel Fauré, who replaced him as organist and choirmaster when he retired. Additionally, he was a teacher and friend to Isidor Philipp, who headed the piano department at the Paris Conservatory for several decades and was a composer and editor of the music of many composers. 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 Massenet. Saint-Saëns also hated the music of Claude Debussy; he is reported to have told Pierre Lalo, music critic, and son of composer Édouard Lalo, "I have stayed in Paris to speak ill of 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's 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 Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, and Siegfried, prompting Hans von Bülow to refer to him as, "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.
Saint-Saëns edited Jean-Philippe Rameau's Pièces de clavecin, and published them in 1895 through Durand in Paris (re-printed by Dover in 1993).
On 29 May 1913, Saint-Saëns stormed out of the première of Igor Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), allegedly infuriated over what he considered the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet's opening bars.
Saint-Saëns began his musical career as a musical pioneer, introducing to France the symphonic poem and championing the radical works of Liszt and Wagner at a time when Bach and Mozart were the norms. By the dawn of the 20th century, Saint-Saëns was an ultra-conservative, fighting the influence of Debussy and Richard Strauss. This is hardly surprising—Saint-Saëns's career began while Chopin and Mendelssohn were in their prime, and ended at the commencement of the Jazz Age; but his image endured for years after his death.
As a composer, Saint-Saëns was often criticized for his refusal to embrace romanticism and at the same time, rather paradoxically, for his adherence to the conventions of 19th-century musical language. He is remembered chiefly for works such as The Carnival of the Animals, which was not published in full until after his death - reportedly because Saint-Saëns feared it would affect his reputation as a serious composer; the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin and orchestra, the operas Samson and Delilah and Henry VIII (of which only the first is frequently performed today), 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.
– Camille Saint-Saëns, from a letter to Camille Bellaigue, 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 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 by only a few on the piano. 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 4th Piano Concerto in C minor strongly resembles the last movement of Mozart's 24th Concerto, 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 cites Chopin's fourth scherzo as an example).
Saint-Saëns's early start and his long life provided him with time to write hundreds of compositions; during his career, he wrote many dramatic works, including four symphonic poems, and thirteen operas, of which Samson et Dalila 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 The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (Op. 128, 1908).
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 twenty 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 Second Piano concerto is one of the most popular of virtuoso piano concertos, and the Third Violin Concerto and First Cello Concerto also remain popular.
In 1886 he wrote his final symphony, the Symphony No. 3, avec orgue (with organ), one of his best-known works. The motif of the third became the inspiration for the 1978 song If I Had Words by Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley. 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 in the Belle Époque at the end of the 19th century, a period that produced the Eiffel Tower, the Universal Exposition at Paris. 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 also completed The Carnival of the Animals, which was first performed privately on 9 March. In contrast with the work's later popularity, Saint-Saëns forbade complete performances of it shortly after its première, allowing only one movement, Le cygne (The Swan) for cello and two pianos, to be published in his lifetime. 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 listeners and critics.
Saint-Saëns also wrote six preludes and fugues for organ, three in Op. 99 and three in Op. 109, of which Op. 99, no. 3 in E flat major is most often performed.
A previously lost opera score Hélène was composed by Saint-Saëns for the great Australian soprano, Dame Nellie Melba, in 1904. The score was rediscovered by a researcher in 2007 and was performed for the first time in the soprano's home city (Melbourne) during January 2008.
One of Saint-Saëns's symphonic poems, Le rouet d'Omphale, Op. 31, became famous to a new generation of listeners beginning in 1937 through its use of the ominous middle section of it as the theme to the long-running radio program, The Shadow.
Saint-Saëns was thought to have ethnically Jewish traits, especially in his youth. For this reason, some contemporaries and historians believed he was of Jewish descent. He said that a person called "Saint-Saëns" could not possibly be a Jew, but close friend Leopold Godowsky said he had taken his mother's name (instead of his father's name). Boschat Adolphe said that he could not be of Jewish origin because his uncle was a priest,:62-63 and Jacques Hanschin also tried to disprove this origin.:69 W. L. Hubbard simply lists him as being of Jewish descent.
He was also rumoured to be homosexual.
^ Henderson, AM Memories of Some Distinguished French Organists: Saint-Saëns, The Musical Times, Vol. 78, No. 1132 (Jun., 1937), pp. 534-536.
^ "SAINT-SAENS DENIES BEING GERMANOPHILE; Constantly Warned France Against German Musical Propaganda, Says Famous French Composer". The New York Times. 4 March 1917. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9B0CE0D6173AE433A25757C0A9659C946696D6CF.
^ Davis, Richard (1999). Complete Guide to Film Scoring, Berklee Press, Boston. ISBN 0-634-00636-3, p. 17
^ Long lost opera premieres in Melbourne - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
^ Modest Tchaikovsky (2004). The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (illustrated ed.). The Minerva Group, Inc.. p. 176. ISBN 1410216128, 9781410216120.
^ a b James Gibbons Huneker (2010), Steeplejack: PT. III. New York (1877-1917), Kessinger Publishing, p. 167, ISBN 1417907266, 9781417907267, http://books.google.com/books?id=NI1ZYScrZLUC (scanned from a 1920 edition, also published under the name "Variations" in 1922 )
^ a b c Timothy Flynn (2003), Camille Saint-Saëns: a guide to research, Routledge music bibliographies. Composer Resource Manuals Series, Routledge, pp. 27,82, ISBN 0815336195, 9780815336198, http://books.google.com/books?id=npxIWeYQgGIC
^ W. L. Hubbard (2005). The American History And Encyclopedia of Music: Musical Biographies. Kessinger Publishing. p. 264. ISBN 1417907134, 9781417907137. http://books.google.com/books?id=RTONV5noSEkC.
^ Brian Rees (1999), Camille Saint-Saëns: a life (illustrated ed.), Chatto & Windus, pp. 190–193, ISBN 1856197735, 9781856197731, http://books.google.es/books?ei=Z502TIvnI5KWOIGfzMgE
^ George E. Haggerty  (2000), Gay histories and cultures: an encyclopedia, Garland reference library of social science, 2 (illustrated ed.), Taylor & Francis, p. 954, ISBN 0815318804, 9780815318804, http://books.google.es/books?id=406CCTn4AAQC Inside Volumen 2 de Encyclopedia of lesbian and gay histories and cultures, Bonnie Zimmerman, ISBN 0815333544, 9780815333548