Camille Saint-Saëns

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Camille Saint-Saëns
Signature of Saint-Saëns

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (French: [ʃaʁl kamij sɛ̃sɑ̃s]; 9 October 1835 – 16 December 1921), also known by his nom de plume, Sannois, was a French composer, organist, conductor, and pianist of the Romantic era. He is known especially for The Carnival of the Animals, Danse macabre, Samson and Delilah (Opera), Violin Concerto No. 3, Piano Concerto No. 2, Cello Concerto No. 1, Havanaise, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and his Symphony No. 3 (Organ Symphony).

Saint-Saëns' large body of music achieved a degree of commercial success as well as critical acclaim, so that he became one of the most popular composers in France during his lifetime. He started out as a child prodigy performer on both organ and piano, and soon began composing. Saint-Saëns earned the Legion d'honneur in 1868 for his work.[1]

Early years and education[edit]

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 precocity was not limited to music. He learned to read and write by the age of 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 hands and fingers but 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, Friedrich 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.

In the late 1840s, at the age of thirteen, Saint-Saëns entered the Conservatoire de Paris, where he studied organ and composition, the latter under Fromental Halévy. Here he became friendly with the even younger Georges Bizet, who was aged only 10. 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").

Middle years[edit]

Saint-Saëns early in his career.

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.[2] 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[3] 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 Société astronomique de 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 its lasting less than ten 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 social 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, nearing forty, Saint-Saëns married Marie Laure Emile Truffot, who was just 19. They had two sons, both of whom died in 1878, within six weeks of each other, one from an illness, the other upon falling out of a fourth-story window (as the composer, approaching his house, watched). 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.[4]

From 1877 to 1889, he lived at 14, rue Monsieur-le-Prince, and the apartment house is marked by a plaque. (Photo of the plaque)

Later years[edit]

Camille Saint-Saëns, 1915 (Bain News Service)

In 1886 Saint-Saëns produced 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. Saint-Saëns also wrote under his own name. In 1890, he published a collection of poems titled Rimes familieres; in 1898, he authored a one-act stage play titled La crampe des écrivains.

In 1908, he had the distinction of being one of the first celebrated composers 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.

Saint-Saëns continued to write on musical, scientific and historical topics, travelling frequently before spending his last years in Algiers. Saint-Saëns was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 1868; and eventually, in 1913, he attained France's highest award, the Grand-Croix de la Légion d'honneur. Streets in Paris, Toulouse, Marseille, and Carcassonne are named in his honor.

In May 1915, Saint-Saëns traveled to San Francisco as France's Official Representative to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. He attended a performance of his Third "Organ" Symphony at the 3,782-seat Festival Hall. Karl Muck conducted the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The composer was given a standing ovation at the performance, which was also attended by composer John Philip Sousa. Saint-Saëns composed another piece especially for the occasion called "Hail California", which included Sousa's famous band.

Saint-Saëns died of pneumonia on 16 December 1921, aged 86, at the Hôtel de l'Oasis in Algiers. His body was repatriated to Paris, honoured by a state funeral at La Madeleine, and interred at Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.

Relationships with other composers[edit]

Saint-Saëns was either friend or enemy to some of Europe's most distinguished musicians. He had the honour of being invited to play with the legendary Charles-Valentin Alkan for the latter's first season of Petits Concerts at the Érard piano showrooms in 1873.[5] He stayed close to Franz Liszt and maintained a fast friendship with his pupil Gabriel Fauré, who eventually replaced him as organist and choirmaster after 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 and d'Indy, and while he praises the musical genius of Jules Massenet in his 1919 book Musical Memories, he also states pointedly in the same chapter that he had no use for Massenet personally. 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 titled Germanophilie, which ruthlessly attacked Wagner.[6]

Saint-Saëns edited Jean-Philippe Rameau's Pièces de clavecin, and published them in 1895 through Durand in Paris (reprinted by Dover in 1993).

It is sometimes said that Saint-Saëns stormed out of the première of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring on 29 May 1913, infuriated over what he considered the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet's opening bars.[7] In fact, he was not present on that occasion, but did walk out of the first concert performance of the score, conducted by Pierre Monteux in April 1914; Saint-Saëns opined that Stravinsky was "mad".[8]


From Samson and Delilah. Sung by Enrico Caruso in 1916.

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Saint-Saëns began his musical career as a musical pioneer, introducing the symphonic poem to France 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 while defending the reputations of Meyerbeer and Berlioz. This is hardly surprising as Saint-Saëns' career began while Chopin and Mendelssohn were in their prime, and his efforts ended at the commencement of the Jazz Age. Yet Saint-Saëns' public image and body of work has endured for years after his death, particularly in Francophone nations.

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 symphonic poem Danse Macabre, the Symphony No. 3; the second, fourth and fifth piano concertos; the third violin concerto; the first cello concerto; the first violin sonata; and the clarinet sonata.

His musical endeavors came in tandem with his interest in being a part-time archaeologist and recording his travels as a journalist, making trips to Africa, the Middle East, South America, and elsewhere. His corpus of writing, which include plays as well as poetry besides prose work, has also attracted much interest in terms of Saint-Saëns' legacy.



Camille Saint-Saëns

"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' concertos and many of his chamber music works are both technically hard 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 out of 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.[original research?]

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.[citation needed]

In performance, Saint-Saëns is said to have been "unequalled on the organ",[this quote needs a citation] 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.[citation needed]

He was, incidentally, the earliest-born pianist ever to make recordings. But he was not the earliest-born pianist to leave a record in any form of their piano playing, as Carl Reinecke, who was born in 1824 (eleven years before Saint-Saëns, and while Beethoven was still alive), made a Welte-Mignon roll in 1904, when he was 80. Nor was he the first pianist to make recordings; an arrangement of the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde was made by Landon Ronald in 1900 on a seven-inch Berliner disc.[9]

He was often charged with being unemotional and business-like, less memorable than other more charismatic performers.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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. Arthur Rubinstein never forgot the ease with which Saint-Saëns played (he cites Chopin's fourth scherzo as an example).[10]

Musical works[edit]

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 (the third of the four symphonic poems) are among his most famous. In all, he composed over 300 works and was one of the first major composers to write music specifically for the cinema, for Henri Lavedan's film The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (Op. 128, 1908).[11]

"Le cygne" performed by John Michel

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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 Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra in G Minor; the Havanaise and the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso for violin and orchestra; and three Morceau de concerts, one each for harp, horn, and violin 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. A motif from 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 and 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.

Also in 1886, Saint-Saëns 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. In 1950, poet Ogden Nash wrote verses to introduce the various movements and these have sometimes been used in concerts and recordings of the music.

Improvisation No. 7 (Allegro giocoso) performed by Robert Smith

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Saint-Saëns also wrote a number of solo organ works including 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.

The opera Hélène was composed by Saint-Saëns for the great Australian soprano, Dame Nellie Melba, in 1904. Unstaged after its premiere in Monaco, it was performed in the soprano's home city (Melbourne) during January 2008.[12]

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 by some to have Jewish racial traits (e.g. by Tchaikovsky[13]). His father, however, was "descended from a Norman agricultural family".[14] Although there appears to be no evidence of any Jewish ancestry in Saint-Saëns's background, his music was proscribed under Nazi Germany.[15] In terms of political context, Saint-Saëns viewed German militarism and pan-Germanic nationalism in his lifetime with severe contempt, arguing strongly on behalf of French culture and philosophy in opposition. He notably even created essays during World War I stating that all German music should not receive public performance in France given the circumstances.




  1. ^ "Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)" on
  2. ^ Henderson, A. M., Memories of Some Distinguished French Organists: Saint-Saëns, The Musical Times, Vol. 78, No. 1132 (Jun., 1937), pp. 534–536
  3. ^ Rees, p. 73: Baumann constantly emphasises the spiritual content of Saint-Saëns's music despite the composer's emphatic atheist views of later years; Benefield, p. ??: "An avowed atheist, Saint-Saëns's uncompromisingly rigid standards and austere musical tastes, as well as his outspoken views on church music, often placed him at odds with the clergy"
  4. ^ Biography.
  5. ^ Smith, Alkan: The Man/The Music (2000) I, 66–7.
  6. ^ "SAINT-SAENS DENIES BEING GERMANOPHILE; Constantly Warned France Against German Musical Propaganda, Says Famous French Composer". The New York Times. 4 March 1917. 
  7. ^ The Rite of Spring (background to 2004 performance at Kennedy Center). Retrieved 22 August 2013
  8. ^ Canarina, p. 47
  9. ^ Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists, p. 264
  10. ^
  11. ^ Davis, p. 17
  12. ^ Long lost opera premieres in Melbourne – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
  13. ^ Modest Tchaikovsky (2004). The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (illustrated ed.). The Minerva Group, Inc. p. 176. ISBN 978-1-4102-1612-0. 
  14. ^ Oxford Music Online, Saint-Saëns, (Charles) Camille (accessed 28.1.2012)
  15. ^ Kater, p. 85


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