Saint-Saëns's Life & Works

French Romantic who combined formal elegance with melodic allure in his orchestral and chamber music.

(1835 - 1921)

Early Life

'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.

Samson and Delilah

Although perhaps not the most visually exciting of operas, Saint-Saëns's musical adaptation of the famous biblical story is chock full of memorable tunes, beautifully orchestrated. 

Camille Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila, Op.47, R. 288 "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" (Act 2) Elena Obraztsova, Plácido Domingo, Orchestre de Paris, Daniel Barenboim

Piano Concertos Nos 1-5

Richly enjoyable cycle of piano concertos that combine easygoing lyricism, sparkling virtuosity, rhythmic joi-de-vivre and Mendelssohnian sleight-of-hand in roughly equal proportions.

Camille Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No.2 In G Minor, Op.22, R.190 3. Presto Pascal Rogé, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Dutoit

Carnival of the Animals

Intended only as a lightweight plaisanterie for his own privateuse, Saint-Saëns would not allow the Carnival'spublication or public performance in his own lifetime, save for'The Swan' cello solo.



Camille Saint-Saëns Le Carnaval des Animaux, R. 125 Le Cygne Wolfgang Herzer, Alfons Kontarsky, Aloys Kontarsky, Karl Böhm

Cello Concerto No.1

Beautifully written, exhilarating concerto, designed so that thecello can play with the kind of brilliance and flexibility normallyassociated with the violin, yet still retain its essentialnobility.

Camille Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.33 1. Allegro non troppo Mischa Maisky, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Symphony No.3

Dedicated to the memory of Liszt and composed for the RoyalPhilharmonic Society of London's 73rd anniversary, the 'Organ'Symphony is a towering masterpiece of late-Romantic opulence.

Camille Saint-Saëns Symphony No.3 in C Minor, Op.78 "Organ Symphony" 2b. Maestoso - Più allegro - Molto allegro Simon Preston, Berliner Philharmoniker, James Levine

Violin Concerto No.3

The great Spanish violinist and composer, Pablo de Sarasate, was the principal inspiration behind this most popular and engagingly tuneful of Saint-Saëns's three violin concertos.

Camille Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No.3 In B Minor, Op.61 1. Allegro non troppo Gil Shaham, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Giuseppe Sinopoli

Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso

In 1863, Saint-Saëns wrote a solo piece for Sarasate: The Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A minor for violin and orchestra. The Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Violin and Orchestra was originally intended to be the rousing Finale to Saint-Saëns' first violin concerto, op.20.

Camille Saint-Saëns Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso, Op.28 Itzhak Perlman, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta

Danse Macabre

Saint-Saëns’s dazzling tone poem Danse macabre op. 40 provoked a tremendous scandal at its first performance in January 1875 and since then has regularly been dismissed as an example of “high-class light entertainment”.

Camille Saint-Saëns Danse macabre, Op.40 Luben Yordanoff, Orchestre de Paris, Daniel Barenboim

Beginning of Career

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.

Late Works

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.