Camille Saint-Saëns | Biography

Biography

‘I compose music’, said Camille Saint-Saëns, ‘as a tree produces apples.’ A child prodigy, virtuoso pianist and accomplished travel writer, the prolific French composer came to embody the spirit of Classicism in an era of high Romantic creativity. Yet the elegance and formality of his music never overwhelm the unstoppable verve and spontaneity that make it so irresistible. Saint-Saëns took pride in his family’s Normandy roots, but his father had moved to Paris before his birth and Camille was thoroughly Parisian in his upbringing and outlook. After his father died of tuberculosis, he was brought up by his mother and an aunt. They encouraged the signs of genius that saw him deliver written compositions before he was four and make a public appearance aged five, playing the piano part in a Beethoven violin sonata. By the age of ten, he was good enough to perform two concertos alongside several solo pieces in a legendary concert at the Salle Pleyel concert hall in Paris. Study at the Conservatoire followed, then a solo career to go alongside his composing work. This was bolstered by organist posts at prestigious Paris churches where his awe-inspiring improvisation skills had the chance to flourish. For a while in the 1860s Saint-Saëns taught at the École Niedermeyer, an alternative to the Conservatoire that had more of an interest in early music, where the composers Gabriel Fauré and André Messager were among his students. He married in 1875, quickly fathering two sons. Both died in 1878, one by falling from a window. Saint-Saëns blamed his wife and left her three years later. Subsequently, he travelled widely and adventurously, frequently visiting Algeria. Throughout his life he was an intellectual omnivore, especially in the sciences, writing intelligently and engagingly on a wide range of subjects, and maintained a vigorous presence on the Paris musical scene. In 1871 he was the driving force behind the new Société Nationale de Musique, formed to promote instrumental music in the face both of German pre-eminence – this was the year after the Franco-Prussian War – and of the city’s obsession with opera. Later he was an opponent of Wagner’s influence and then of Debussy. But among composers, he held the respect not only of Fauré but of Maurice Ravel and the generation of composers led by Francis Poulenc that followed shortly. Clearly, Saint-Saëns was one of the great musicians of his time. His compositions are the fruit of an agile brain, finding unexpected colours in familiar instruments and treating standard musical forms in original ways. His qualities are at their sharpest in his five piano concertos, all vehicles for his nimble playing. The Second, the most performed, opens with a Bach-like theme and continues at ever greater speeds. In the Fourth, the four movements merge into two pairs, linked by a tissue of developing themes. The Fifth is full of exotic effects and evocations of Egypt (he wrote the piece in Luxor, famous for its ruined temples), and ends with a ragtime romp.  With Le Rouet d’Omphale (Omphale’s Spinning Wheel, 1871) he composed the first French symphonic poem. And in his final symphony of 1886 he launched a new French interest in the form. This, the Third Symphony, also known as the ‘Organ’ Symphony, uses a two-movement plan similar to his Fourth Piano Concerto. Everything grows from two brief themes towards a spectacular culmination in accelerating rhythms, lavishly orchestrated with great skill. One of the symphony’s most fetching effects, a piano duet rippling against string harmonies, was recycled the same year in the movement titled ‘Aquarium’ in his Carnaval des Animaux (‘Carnival of the Animals’). Saint-Saëns would only allow this satirical piece to be played in private in his lifetime as he feared its light-hearted character would tarnish his reputation as a serious composer. All, that is, except for one movement: ‘The Swan’. Played by a solo cello and piano duet, the lyrical melody has a depth of felling that is unusual for Saint-Saëns. In music and in person, he was affected by an emotional inhibition that limited the truly affecting moments in his work. Opera, in all its human and dramatic dimensions, was a struggle. He had great difficulty in securing performances of Samson et Dalila, only doing so when his friend Liszt came to the rescue with an 1877 production in Weimar. It soon became a fixture in the Paris Opera repertoire but its success was not to be repeated. Of Saint-Saëns’s later operas only Henry VIII survived for long. Even Samson, still popular today, relies on two arias that really capture Delilah’s character, suggesting a complex mix of sensuality and scheming. Some of the rest is engaging to the ear, but the story is short of opportunities for theatrical thrills. Yes, the temple is brought crashing down at the climax, but everybody knew it this was going to happen anyway. Living on for half a century after he founded the Société Nationale, Saint-Saëns was able to witness the great flowering of French chamber music that took place during the period, led by his pupil Fauré. Not everything was to his taste, however. As the dedicatee of César Franck’s Piano Quintet (1880), he took part in the premiere, but walked out at the end leaving his inscribed score on the piano. Apparently its passionate expression, inspired by a controversial love interest of Franck’s, was too much for him. Saint-Saëns made major contributions of his own to the chamber repertoire, including sonatas for violin and for cello and a superb Septet featuring solo trumpet. Then, right at the end of his life, he began a series of woodwind sonatas. In their understanding of the instruments' capabilities, their compact forms and their focused expression they are among his most perfect achievements.