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Learn About the French Composer, Camille Saint-Saëns' Works and Life

Camille Saint-Saëns: Overview 

  • Born: October 9, 1835 - Paris, France
  • Died: December 16, 1921 - Algiers
  • Historical Period: Romantic 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, opera, songs, ballet  

Composer, Camile Saint Saens

Camille Saint-Saëns: The Forgotten Old Maestro

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns or simply Camille Saint-Saëns was born in France in the year 1835. His primary fame came from his talents in symphonic writing, as he was the first Frenchman of his time to do so. After several displays of brilliance through his many pieces over the years, he came to be known as a skilled pianist, and also a critic of poetry and plays. 

Exhibiting prodigious talents, the young Saint-Saëns had his recital debut in 1846, after which he went on to study at the Paris Conservatory. He learned composition and organ there. Symphony No. 1 was produced and performed in 1855, and going ahead, Saint-Saëns drew recognition and appreciation from eminent composers like Rossini, Gounod, and Berlioz. The year 1857 was when he was appointed as an organist at La Madeleine. He maintained this association for 20 years. The years 1853 through 1876 saw him work and perform in a number of capacities, such as being a church organist and teacher at the École Niedermeyer. This period also churned out numerous wonderful pieces, such as Symphony in F major or Urbs Roma (1853), and several other concertos.

His early achievements meant that he was greatly revered, and at just 32, he became the recipient of the Légion d’Honneur. 

A matter of regret was that Le Carnaval des Animaux or Carnival of the Animals, Saint-Saëns’ most famous piece, never got a public performance while the composer was alive. It was only in 1922, after Saint-Saëns’ death, that Auguste Durand, a composer himself, published it. It was subsequently performed by Concerts Colonne in France. As a conservative author of classy music, his multi-genre works include Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 (1868), Samson et Dalila or Samson and Delilah, Op. 47 (1877), and Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 (1886). Samson and Delilah faced Parisian rejections because the public was prejudiced against the piece’s stage portrayal of biblical characters. It finally debuted in Germany on Liszt’s recommendation in 1877. The grateful composer later dedicated Symphony No. 3 in C minor in Liszt’s memory.

After the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Saint-Saëns laid the foundation of the National Society of Music, and that year, his debut symphonic poem, Le Rouet d’Omphale, was produced. Despite his renown for a while, various works like Oratorio de Noël (1858), The Requiem, Op. 54 (1878), Javotte (1896), and Cyprès et Lauriers (1919) are still obscure and relatively unknown. We also find that pieces like Piano Quartet in B flat major, Op. 41 (1875) add to this list of unfamiliarity. 

A special mention goes to the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A minor, Op. 28 (1863), which is a very good example of the composer’s ingenuity.  

The year 1875 was when Saint-Saëns got married to Marie Truffot, who was his student’s sister. The said matrimony resulted in two boys who died in quick succession; one by falling from the 4th story and the other from pneumonia. This created a rift between the couple and they separated in 1881. Ironically, it was during this darkest of times when Saint-Saëns composed some of his best works, which notably includes the Danse macabre, Op. 40 (1874), a piece of orchestral music, based on a superstition regarding death in French lore. 

Saint-Saëns garnered respect far and wide from major artists such as the likes of Wagner and was even closely studied by the French novelist Marcel Proust. Piano Concerto No. 5 (1895) and the Cello Concerto No. 2 (1902) are worthy mentions of his latter compositions.

After Saint-Saëns’s mother died in 1888, his compositional output started going downhill. He began earning a reputation for becoming increasingly unsocial, in addition to his open dislike for stalwarts such as Brahms and Strauss. He despised the radicalism in Debussy’s works. The last years of his life saw him alone and detached from the world. Saint-Saëns eventually passed away in Algiers in 1921. He got a state funeral at La Madeleine in Paris.

Modern experts are of the opinion that for his time, Camille Saint-Saëns was gifted but non-traditional in the number of genres he covered in his works. From symphonies and chamber music to concertos and solo piano, among others, he accomplished the creation of several types of music. From a young age, he enjoyed the widespread appreciation for his music, which unfortunately and ultimately turned to cruel rejection in his old age.  



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