Lesson Tutor: Classical Composer Camille Saint-Saens Biography

Classical Composer Biography: Camille Saint-Saens
by Betty Fry

Born in 1835 in Paris, Camille Saint-Saens was the son of a civil servant, and although I could find little to tell about either of his parents, I do know that he was extremely fond of his mother, because when she died in 1888 he contemplated suicide.

Clearly they recognized and encouraged his remarkable talent. Three years after his birth when he began piano lessons he could already read and write, and almost immediately began composing.

At the age of ten, blessed with perfect pitch, a prodigious memory and tireless energy, he was dazzling Paris audiences with brilliant recitals of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

At thirteen he became an organ student at the Paris Conservatoire, and in 1852 his ‘Ode a Sainte Cecile’ made his name as a young composer. At the age of sixteen he wrote his first symphony, and remained an active composer throughout his long life. In his lifetime he composed over three hundred works, including 13 operas, and was the first major composer to write music specifically for the cinema. He was also a prolific writer and championed earlier French composers, such as Rameau, as well as the romantics – Liszt, Berlioz, and Schumann.

As the supreme virtuoso Saint-Saens was feted all over the music loving world, traveling ceaselessly throughout Europe, Russia, and the USA accompanied only by his servant Gabriel and his pet dogs. With his beaked nose, neat beard, bowler hat and frock coat, he was a familiar and much admired figure in England, where oratorios and cantatas he composed for music festivals were always well received, especially when he was able to conduct them himself.

However it was at the organ that he first established his reputation, and held the key post of organist at the fashionable Madeleine Church in Paris for twenty years. He was also an accomplished pianist, and his mastery of the piano can be judged from his own writing for the instrument, notably the five piano concertos, each of which he premiered in turn.

He said of himself that he lived in music ‘like a fish in water’, and his playing did indeed reflect many of his characteristics as a composer. These include a technical ease, a clarity, a fluency in performance, an elegance, a brilliance and – it has to be said – a lack of emotional depth., which has at times given rise to charges of superficiality.

In his own words, he pursued ‘the chimera of purity of style and perfection of form’ while Berlioz once said of him ‘He knows everything but lacks experience’.

Saint-Saens private life was less than completely happy. He was homosexual and understandably showed little sign of wanting to marry. However in 1875 at the age of almost 40, he fell in love with nineteen year old Marie-Laure Truffot. His infatuation did not last long. After their wedding, Saint-Saens declared that he was too busy for a honeymoon, and took Marie straight home to live with his mother.

Thereafter the composer treated his wife with deep disdain until the arrival of children brought out his more sympathetic side. But even this was tragically short lived, since in 1878 both children died within six weeks of each other: André, aged two, fell from a fourth floor window, and soon afterwards his baby brother Jean became ill and died.

Saint-Saens blamed Marie for the children’s deaths, and a few years later he walked out on her in the middle of a holiday. Marie never saw him again.

After his mother’s death he allowed his wanderlust full rein, traveling to North America, South America and Sri Lanka before spending his last years in Algiers.

Within a very few years Saint-Saens had triumphed in every musical field except the theatre. Success here eluded him until the 1890 Paris production of his opera ‘Samson et Dalila’, which captivated audiences with its lush melodies and orientalism. 

This remains, together with the Third (Organ) Symphony, the Second and Fourth Piano Concertos, the irresistible ‘Le Carnival des animaux’ and lesser pieces such as ‘Danse Macabre’ among the most popular of his works.

I suppose it must be because of the aforementioned lack of emotion in his music that makes Saint Saens not one of my favorite composers, but there are a couple of exceptions to that statement. ‘Le Carnival des animaux’,  which does not really need translating as ‘Carnival of the Animals’, is the most important one .

Saint-Saens captures the characters of his animals with clarity, wit, and charm. Written as a private musical joke, to parody the styles of the composer’s contemporaries, this ‘carnival’ enjoys immense popularity, especially with children.

I have been listening to the first six pieces as he originally wrote them, for two pianos, and an instrumental chamber ensemble. Knowing what the music portrayed, I found it wonderful music.

After a brief call to attention, led by the two pianos, ‘Royal March of the Lion’ is a proud and stately affair. The power of the two pianos is harnessed in rumbling runs up and down the bass notes to create an effective roar.

Sharp, shrill toned violins cluck and scratch alongside the keyboard in a strident portrayal of the farmyard in ‘Cocks and Hens’ pierced only by a proud and splendid ‘cockcrow’ from the clarinet.

The ‘Wild asses’lead the two pianists a brief but hectic chase up and down the keyboards.

The ‘Tortoises’ dance to a comically slow version of the famous ‘Cancan’  from Offenbach‘s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’

The elephant in his turn, performs a rather cumbersome waltz (with another quotation from Berlioz’s ‘Dance of the Sylph’s in ‘The Damnation of Faust’ ), represented by the gruff tones of the double bass – giving the instrument a rare moment in the musical spotlight.

While the kangaroos, by contrast, leap and hop, or keep very still.

Included in this Carnival series is ‘The Aquarium’a wonderful piece of music beginning with rippling runs and chords on the piano which conjure up a suitably aquatic scene in this musical aquarium.

The sinuous melody of the violins and flute suggests fish gliding through the water, while the subtle variations in the piece all help to paint a magical picture of bustling underwater life.

Many psychologists believe that images of water, and the movement of fish have a calming effect on the nerves. I certainly felt very serene as I listened to this lovely music.

And yet, famous though these pieces now are, Saint-Saens would not allow them to be published until after his death. He considered they might damage his reputation. While as far as I am concerned they could only have enhanced  whatever opinion I might have had at that time.

Through most of the 19th century, French music was dominated by opera. Composers were drawn to the fame and fortune to be found in the glittering opera houses of Paris.

Saint Saens too had his share in that field, but he composed such a fine body of orchestral and instrumental music that he contributed in no small measure to shifting the center of gravity away from the opera house and towards the concert hall.

Paving the way in fact for such 20th century masters of orchestral and piano writing as Debussy and Ravel.

Camille Saint-Saens was a man of wide interests, and had a lively curiosity in many other subjects besides music. He was an avid and enthusiastic historian, with a special knowledge of ancient Roman art and architecture.

He learned Latin under a private tutor, and it was a matter of great regret that he never studied Greek. Astronomy was another keen interest of his. He once even broke off an important rehearsal in order to watch an eclipse of the sun.

But while Camille Saint-Saens took himself very seriously as a composer, his extreme Gallic charm and joie de vivre constantly rises to the surface in his glorious music.

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