|Charles Camille Saint-Saëns (IPA: [ʃaʁl.kamij.sɛ̃sɑ̃s]) (9 October 1835 – 16 December 1921) was a French composer and performer, best known for his orchestral work The Carnival of the Animals.
Camille Saint-Saëns' long life spanned nearly the entire duration of the Romantic period of music. He was part of the heyday of the movement and witnessed its death and the dawn of 20th-century music.
He was born in Paris to a government clerk who died only three months after his son's birth. His mother, Clémence, sought the aid of her aunt, Charlotte Masson, who moved in and introduced Camille to the piano. One of the most talented musical child prodigies of all time, he had perfect pitch and began piano lessons with his great-aunt at two years old, then almost immediately began composing. His first composition, a little piece for the piano dated 22 March 1839, is now kept in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Saint-Saëns' precociousness was not limited to music; he could read and write by the time he was three, and had learned Latin four years later.
His first piano recital was given at age five, when he accompanied a Beethoven violin sonata. He went on to begin in-depth study of the full score of Don Giovanni. In 1842, Saint-Saëns began piano lessons with Camille-Marie Stamaty, a pupil of Friedrich Kalkbrenner, who had his students play the piano while resting their forearms on a bar situated in front of the keyboard, so that all the pianist's power came from the hand and fingers and not the arms. At ten years of age, Saint-Saëns gave his debut public recital at the Salle Pleyel, playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat major (K. 450), and various pieces by Handel, Kalkbrenner, Hummel, and Bach. As an encore, Saint-Saëns offered to play any of the thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas from memory. Word of this incredible concert spread across Europe and even to America, appearing in a Boston newspaper.
In the late 1840s, Saint-Saëns entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied organ and composition, the latter under Jacques Halévy. Saint-Saëns won many top prizes, but he failed to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in both 1852 and 1864. The reputation these awards garnered him resulted in his introduction to Franz Liszt, who became one of his closest friends. At the age of sixteen, Saint-Saëns wrote his first symphony; his second, published as the Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major, was performed in 1853 to the astonishment of many critics and fellow composers. Hector Berlioz, who became one of Saint-Saëns' good friends, famously commented, "Il sait tout, mais il manque d'inexpérience" ("He knows everything, but lacks inexperience").
For income, Saint-Saëns worked playing the organ at various churches in Paris. In 1857, he replaced Lefébure-Wely at the eminent position of organist at the Église de la Madeleine, which he kept until 1877. His weekly improvisations stunned the Parisian public and earned Liszt's 1866 observation that Saint-Saëns was the greatest organist in the world.
From 1861 to 1865, Saint-Saëns held his only teaching position as professor of piano at the École Niedermeyer, where he raised eyebrows by including contemporary music—Liszt, Gounod, Schumann, Berlioz, and Wagner—along with the school's otherwise conservative curriculum of Bach and Mozart. His most successful students at the Niedermeyer were André Messager and Gabriel Fauré, who was Saint-Saëns' favourite pupil and soon his closest friend.
Saint-Saëns was a multi-faceted intellectual. From an early age, he studied geology, archaeology, botany, and lepidoptery. He was an expert at mathematics. Later, in addition to composing, performing, and writing musical criticism, he held discussions with Europe's finest scientists and wrote scholarly articles on acoustics, occult sciences, Roman theatre decoration, and ancient instruments. He wrote a philosophical work, Problèmes et Mystères, which spoke of science and art replacing religion; Saint-Saëns' pessimistic and atheistic ideas foreshadowed Existentialism. Other literary achievements included Rimes familières, a volume of poetry, and La Crampe des écrivains, a successful farcical play. He was also a member of the Astronomical Society of France; he gave lectures on mirages, had a telescope made to his own specifications, and even planned concerts to correspond to astronomical events such as solar eclipses.
In 1870, Saint-Saëns was conscripted into the National Guard to fight in the Franco-Prussian War, which, though over in barely six months, left an indelible mark on the composer. In 1871, he co-founded (with Romain Bussine) the Société Nationale de Musique in order to promote a new and specifically French music. After the fall of the Paris Commune, the Society premiered works by members like Fauré, César Franck, Édouard Lalo, and Saint-Saëns himself, who served as the society's co-president. In this way, Saint-Saëns became a powerful figure in shaping the future of French music.
In 1875, Saint-Saëns married Marie-Laure Truffot and they had two children, André and Jean-François, who died within six weeks of each other in 1878. Saint-Saëns left his wife three years later. The two never divorced, but lived the rest of their lives apart from one another.
1886 brought two of Saint-Saëns' most renowned compositions: Le Carnaval des Animaux and his Symphony No. 3, dedicated to Franz Liszt who had died that year. That same year, however, Vincent d'Indy and his allies had Saint-Saëns removed from the Société Nationale de Musique. Two years later, Saint-Saëns' mother died, driving the mourning composer away from France to the Canary Islands with the alias Sannois. Over the next several years he travelled the world, visiting exotic locations in Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. Saint-Saëns chronicled his travels in many popular books written under the Sannois name.
Saint-Saëns continued to write on musical, scientific, and historical topics, frequently travelling before spending his last years in Algiers, Algeria. In recognition of his accomplishments, the government of France awarded him the Legion of Honour.
Camille Saint-Saëns died of pneumonia on 16 December 1921, at the Hôtel de l'Oasis in Algiers. His body was brought back to Paris for a state funeral at La Madeleine and was buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.
Relationships to other composers
During his life, Saint-Saëns was either a friend or enemy to Europe's most distinguished musicians. He stayed close to Franz Liszt until Liszt's death and maintained a fast friendship with his pupil Gabriel Fauré until the end of his life. But despite being a strong advocate for French music, Saint-Saëns openly despised many of his fellow-composers in France such as Franck, d'Indy, and Jules Massenet. Saint-Saëns also hated the music of Claude Debussy; he is reported to have told Pierre Lalo (musical critic, son of composer Édouard Lalo), "I have stayed in Paris to speak ill of Pelléas et Mélisande." The personal animosity was mutual; Debussy quipped: "I have a horror of a sentimentality and I cannot forget its name is Saint-Saëns." On other occasions, however, Debussy also acknowledged an admiration for Saint-Saëns' musical talents.
Saint-Saëns had been an early champion of Richard Wagner's music in France, teaching his pieces during his tenure at the École Niedermeyer and premiering the March from Tannhäuser. He had stunned even Wagner himself when he sight-read the entire orchestral scores of Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, and Siegfried, prompting Hans von Bülow to call him "the greatest musical mind" of the era. However, despite admitting appreciation for the power of Wagner's work, Saint-Saëns defiantly stated that he was not an aficionado. In 1886, Saint-Saëns was punished for some particularly harsh and anti-German comments on the Paris production of Lohengrin by losing engagements and receiving negative reviews throughout Germany. Later, after World War I, Saint-Saëns angered both French and Germans with his inflammatory articles entitled Germanophilie, which ruthlessly attacked Wagner.
On 29 May 1913, Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet's opening bars.