Camille Saint-Saëns - Biography



 

Camille Charles Saint-Saens the famous French composer was born in October 9th 1835 in and died in Algiers Algeria on December 16th 1921. Saint- Saens father was one generation removed from the French peasantry his was mother from a solid bourgeois family. His mother was soon to be widowed she along with a great aunt gave Saint-Saens the rudiments of a musical education. From an early age he was endowed with a prodigious musical memory an unerring sense of pitch and great skill on the piano. At the age of seven he was already getting academic musical training and by the age ten had his concert debut accompanying Belgian violinist Bessens. By 1846 he had his formal debut as a concert pianist and by the age of 12 entered the Paris Conservatoire to study the organ. He was to remain there for four years and by graduation won the first prize in composition though he failed to win the prestigious Prix de Rome. It was during this period that he met Fran Liszt who was to have a great effect on his career. His first big composition was the oratorio Ode to St. Cecilia that he wrote at 17 and he composed the first of his many charming songs.IN 1854 he was appointed organist in the church of Saint- Merry and soon to be occupy the more prestigious Parisian church OF Madeline. He was to write his First Symphony IN 1855 soon to be followed by a symphony subtitled Urbs Romana though charming works they sound more like diluted Mendelssohn then mature works of Saint-Saens. He was appointed teacher at the Eccole Niedermeyer for a period of four years where one of his students was Gabriel Faure. Saint-Saens had by this time become a successful career as a pianist and organist.

 

Saint-Saens was to marry in 1875 to Marie Truffot, the marriage was not a success and they separated six years later but as devout Catholics they never divorced or remarried. Saint-sans was very much a French nationalist and founded the Society Nationale de Musique in 1871 Initially a supporter of the music of Wagner he wavered and was very active in advocating a revival of the French Opera tradition He wanted to establish himself as a major opera composer but of his twelve operas the only ones that survive are the occasionally revived Henry the Eighth of 1883 and the hugely popular Samson et Delilah of 1877. He was to write four of his witty but small scale Piano Concertos between 1855 and 1875 and wrote a Fifth in 1896. The two most popular are the Second which opens with a stern Bach like movement and a quick dance like final movement which led one wit to write ’that it opens with Bach but ends with Offenbach’ the Fourth conversely ends in a heroic military style. In the early 1880’s he wrote his most popular work the Carnival of the Animals for chamber orchestra and after a private performance banned it’s performance until his death with the exception of piece # 13 the famous Swan for cello. He also wrote three Violin Concertos the Third of which is the most popular and again concludes in brassy heroic manner. Of his two Cello Concertos the First is a staple of the repertoire. Saint- Saens Third Symphony ‘Organ’ dedicated to his mentor Franz Liszt and first performed the year of his death 1886 is one of the most popular of symphonies particularly on record where it’s monumental sonorities have been testing stereo systems capacities for 50 years.

 

Saint-Saens was a prolific composer of chamber music of every form; this along with his conservative classicism made him the preeminent composer of French absolute music during his time. He did write four Lisztian Symphonic Poem, two of which the witty Dance Macabre and Omphale’s Spinning Wheel is still popular. Saint- Saens received many honors during his long life including an honorary degree from Oxford from 1907 along with Kipling and Mark Twain. Saint-Saens became increasingly conservative as he grew older and became quite critical of the older Cesar Franck and his disciples Chausson and D’Indy and in later years horrified by Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. He did form a close friendship with Tchaikovsky. Saint-Saens wrote about 100 songs, very popular with French singers but not well known enough outside of France and he was to continue to write them up until his 86th year. Saint- Saens was to spend much time in Algeria (then part of France) in his later years and it was there that he was to die at 86 on December 16th 1921.

 

Saint- Saens is a composer who worked in a small scale both in terms of time structure and range of emotion. What he was able to offer was wit, elegance and craftsmanship. His long life was seemingly untroubled with the mental and physical ailments that were so typical of 19th Century composers. He is really only appreciated in whole in France. In English speaking countries he is the composer of a handful of ‘Greatest Hits’ with much of his substantial work unknown. Recordings again fill in the picture. Pianists like Roge and Collard have recorded his piano music. Chamber groups like Domus have made fine recordings of his chamber works. The orchestral works have always had their advocates and conductors like Beecham, Munch, Dutoit and Dervaux have made fine recordings. And his songs have finally had their due particularly in a Hyperion recording by the Baritone Francois Le Roux.

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