Famous Composers: Camille Saint-Saëns

Famous Composers Camille Saint-Sans  Sonatica Blog

Chronologically speaking CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) was a ‘bridge figure’: he began to compose music during the lifetime of Luigi Cherubini - who was only five years younger than Mozart - and was still hard at it after the death of Claude Debussy in 1918. In no other sense, however, did he build a bridge or even venture to cross one, preferring to remain in a comfortable tent on his own side of the stream; he took careful note of the activities on the opposite bank of such eminent contemporaries as Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, Cesar Franck and Gabriel Faure (one of his own pupils), but he felt no inclination to join in them

It is true that in youth he was a great admirer of Wagner, entertaining him in Paris - and paying several visits to Germany for the sole purpose of hearing his operas, but after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 his enthusiasm slipped from top to bottom gear and indeed eventually went into reverse: patriotic sentiment clouded aesthetic judgement. As the French music critic Henry Prunieres later wrote, ‘Debussy fought against Wagner’s influence because he considered it detrimental to French art, but Saint-Saëns attacked him merely because he was a German’.1


Although at one stage Saint-Saëns crossed swords with Franck, this had nothing to do with either music or politics and they only quarrelled because at one time both were in love with the same woman; Berlioz and Faure he always held in the highest esteem. Nevertheless he preferred to go his own way so far as composition was concerned. A brilliant all-round musician, a skilled professional who knew all the tricks of the trade and was adept at cloaking trivialities in attractive garb, he adopted early in life a pleasant and conventionally cultured manner which combined acceptable features of both classicism and romanticism (and met with widespread public approval); he could see no valid reason for varying it - and never did. His output was considerable, although not prodigious when the length of his career is taken into account: fourteen operas or operettas, incidental music for six plays, forty-odd choral works and eighty-odd for various orchestral and instrumental combinations, nearly a hundred piano and organ pieces and over a hundred songs. A small pick from this substantial bunch retains popularity to this day, for he had a happy knack of contriving agreeable if somewhat undistinguished tunes and was a pastmaster at producing a tasty omelette out of one small egg. Those works with which readers are likely to become familiar will be referred to in the course of the brief biographical survey which follows.

Saint-Saëns was born in Paris; his father, a civil servant, died less than two months later, and he was brought up by his mother and a great-aunt (also widowed). He was an infant prodigy who before he was three years old could strike and name the different notes on the piano and soon afterwards wrote a waltz; at six he began to study orchestral scores, and by the time he was ten he had already enjoyed success as a concert pianist. A t the age of thirteen he won an organ scholarship to the Conservatoire where he studied composition with Fromental Halevy, and in 1853, having ensured his livelihood by securing a post as a church organist, he began to compose in earnest: during the next seven or eight years he completed two symphonies (in E flat major and A minor), a piano quintet (in A minor), a Mass, a piano concerto (in D major) and two violin concertos (in A major and C major).2 Meanwhile he had fallen in love with the voluptuous Augusta Holmes, a talented amateur musician who (to quote Saint-Saëns’ biographer James Harding) ‘had bold, beautiful features, abundant golden hair, and hand- some breasts of which she was justifiably proud’, but he does not seem to have been unduly perturbed when she turned down his offer of marriage. (His rival in love, Cesar Franck, was already married.)

In 1854 the Swiss-born Louis Niedermeyer, who had studied in Austria, produced operas in Italy and taught music in Belgium, came to Paris to compose Masses and anthems and take charge of the half-moribund Ecole de Musique Religieuse Classique, which under his energetic sway, and renamed Ecole Niedermeyer, soon widened its scope; Saint-Saëns was appointed professor of composition there in 1861. Having by now really found his feet, he presently completed two works which were destined to achieve lasting popularity: Introduction et rondo capriccioso for violin and orchestra, and a second piano concerto (in G minor) - aptly described as an appetizing mixture of Bach and Offen-Bach. The cantata Les Noces Promethee and a third piano concerto (in E flat major) also belong to the 1860s.


When war broke out between France and Prussia in 1870 many Paris musicians did themselves little credit as citizens: there seems to have been a scramble to get on board the next train for Bordeaux or the next paquebot from Calais to Dover as quickly as possible. A ll credit therefore to SaintSaëns who - like Bizet - promptly enlisted in the National Guard.3 After the war he turned his attention to the stage, producing the accomplished but little-known operetta La Princesse jaune and the accomplished and far better-known ‘biblical’ opera Samson et Dalila (with ‘Fair spring is returning’ and ‘Softly awakes my heart’). Among other compositions dating from this period are the remarkably effective tone-poems Le Rouet d’Omphale, Phaeton and Danse macabre, a cello concerto (in A minor), a fourth piano concerto (in C minor) and an ‘Allegro appassionata’ for cello and piano. Saint-Saëns’ fame as a composer had reached its apex when, in 1875, at the age of thirty-nine, he married a girl twenty years younger than himself; six years later they separated.

Although Saint-Saëns continued to compose with enthusiasm to the very end of his life and many of his later works enjoyed contemporary success, it can be seen in retrospect that by the time his marriage broke up he was already past his best. The operas which followed Samson et Dalila are today quite unknown (although one suspects that the operetta Phryne, of which the composer was very proud, might bear revival); the somewhat turgid third symphony (in C minor) and the flashy fifth piano concerto (in F major) are still heard occasionally, but the only works belonging to the last two decades of the nineteenth century that remain deservedly familiar are the Suite algerienne, the third violin concerto (in B minor) and - of course - Le Carnaval des animaux (incorporating ‘Le Cygne’). The twentieth century? Well, during the last year of his life the eighty-five-year-old Camille Saint-Saëns had the initiative to provide welcome additions to the sparse repertories of solo woodwind players with an oboe sonata, a clarinet sonata and a bassoon sonata; all three were truly representative of that slick professional expertise which he had consistently exploited to good purpose and which was perhaps his most engaging characteristic.

1 After the outbreak of the 1914-18 war Saint-Saëns went so far as to declare that ‘it is now as impossible for a Frenchman to listen to Wagner’s operas as it would be for him to applaud a singer who had raped his mother’.

2 Several of these works were not published until much later.
3 Another honourable patriot was Gabriel Faure.

Extract from 'Famous Composers' by Gervase Hughes (1961) courtesy of the publisher.