French composer, pianist and organist Camille Saint-Saëns
died of pneumonia at the age of 86 on le 16 décembre 1921
at the Hôtel de l'Oasis
in Algiers. His body was brought back to Paris for a state funeral at L'église de la Madeleine
and was buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse
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.
Saint-Saëns was born in Paris on le 9 octobre 1835
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 le 22 mars 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 Mozart's opera 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 J.S. 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 L'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.
Saint-Saëns was organist at L'église de la Madeleine for twenty years.
The organ at la Madeleine on which Saint-Saëns played.
From 1861 to 1865, Saint-Saëns held his only teaching position as professor of piano at L'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 J.S. 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. (Later Fauré became organist at La Madeleine
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
,"Writer's Cramp," 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 La 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.
The year 1886 brought two of Saint-Saëns' most renowned compositions, Le Carnaval des Animaux
and his Third Symphony, "The Organ," 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, which as written above, Saint-Saëns had co-founded. 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.
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 French composers 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, "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.
A unique view of the organ pipes at la Madeleine with the church doors open and Place de la Concorde at night visible through the doors.
autre compositeurs français at The Frog Blog:
For Children - this book includes a CD.
Carnival of the Animals: By Saint-Saens
For serious research about Saint-Saëns:
Camille Saint-Saens: A Guide to Research
Listening to Saint-Saëns:
(Louis la Vache regrets that the album artwork is not available.)
Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals / Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf / Britten: Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 / Debussy: La Mer / Ibert: Escales [Hybrid SACD]
This CD includes Saint-Saëns's "Havanaise:"
Sounds of Yo-Yo Ma