Camille Saint-Saëns

Composer Camille Saint-Saëns

The leading French composer of his generation, he was considered the “French Beethoven” in his lifetime, and was often compared to Mozart.

Vital Statistics
October 9, 1835, in Paris.
December 16, 1921, in Algiers.
Performed As:
Pianist, organist, and conductor
During Lifetime:
In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Prussia wins a major victory, which enables it to unify the German states except for Austria, and to annex the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, creating the German Empire. The military disaster topples the government of Emperor Louis Napoleon III, ending the French “Second Empire.” Paris experiences a revolution and briefly installs a local, leftist government called the Commune. The Commune is defeated by a reorganized French army in bloody street fighting, and many Communards are executed or exiled. The sting of these events remains fresh through World War I.
Biographical Outline
  • Child prodigy, 1835-1853: Saint-Saëns’ uncle and father die in his first year. His aunt and mother dote on him, and expose him to the piano at age 3. By age 10, he is playing Beethoven concertos in public. Camille enters the Paris Conservatoire at 13, becoming a prize-winning organist and composer before he turns 20.
  • Young virtuoso, 1853-1869: Saint-Saëns publishes his first compositions. In 1857, he is appointed to a prestigious post: organist at the Church of the Madeleine. In the same year, he visits Italy, initiating a lifelong love of travel. He becomes well-known in Paris as a virtuoso (Franz Liszt considers him the world’s best organist). His compositions win further prizes and include the still-popular Introduction et rondo capriccioso (1863), for violin and orchestra, and the Second Piano Concerto (1868).
  • Disasters and recovery, 1870-1875: After writing a patriotic march and fighting briefly against the Germans during the invasion of 1870, he flees Paris. He lives temporarily in London, returning to Paris to help found the Societè Nationale de Musique, which gives important premieres of French music throughout the 1870s. In 1875, he marries the 19-year-old Marie-Laure Truffot, but his two sons by her die in 1878, one by falling out a window. He continues to advocate for the works of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, and writes a series of his own symphonic poems; the third of these, Danse macabre (1874), becomes a repertory staple.
  • Creative summer, 1876-1889: An admirer, Albert Libon, dies, leaving Saint-Saëns 100,000 francs in his will. At Weimar, Germany, Liszt sees to the premiere of Samson et Dalila (1877), today his only opera (out of the 13 that he composed) that survives in the repertory. The composer reaches a high point of creativity with the Fourth Piano Concerto (1875); the oratorio Le Déluge (The flood, 1875-76); a Requiem Mass (1878); and the Violin Concerto No. 3 (1880), conclude a productive decade. In 1881, blaming his wife, in part, for the death of his sons, Saint-Saëns abandons and never sees her again. He is elected to the Legion d’Honneur in 1884, and writes his two best-known works, the “Organ” Symphony No. 3 (1886, commissioned and premiered by the Philharmonic Society of London) and Carnival of the Animals (1887).
  • Éminence grise, 1890-1921: His popularity waning in France, where he is seen as increasingly “behind the times,” Saint- Saëns is considered one of the greatest living composers in England and America. He travels extensively, receives honorary doctorates and awards, and continues to compose and perform. (He guest-conducts the San Francisco Symphony in 1915.) He also acts as series editor for the first complete edition of Rameau’s works. He dies in Algeria, his favorite haunt, a few months after celebrating his 75th anniversary as a public performer. He is given a state funeral and is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery.
Fun Facts
  • Renaissance man: Saint-Saëns had many interests and talents. He was expert in mathematics and maintained interests in the sciences — everything from archaeology to botany, but particularly astronomy. With the proceeds of his first music publication, he bought a telescope and later became a member of the Astronomical Society of France. In his elder years, he wrote accounts of his travels, using the pen-name Sannois. He also wrote a volume of poetry and a philosophical work.
  • Friends and enemies: Saint-Saëns had a wicked tongue and made enemies among professional musicians, notably Vincent D’Indy and, later, Claude Debussy. Yet he also staunchly supported younger composers, particularly his longtime friend Gabriel Fauré.
  • Discretion the better part of ardor: Saint-Saëns could not bear to confront Marie-Laure directly with a proposal of marriage; rather, he wrote a note to her brother, asking him if he’d like to become his brother-in-law.
  • Caught on film: Saint-Saëns was the first well-known composer to write music for a movie, Assassination of the Duke of Guise (1908).
  • Traveler and souvenir hunter: Saint-Saëns visited every continent except Australia and Antarctica, while maintaining a collection at home of bottled sea creatures.
  • Fast friends: On a trip to Moscow in 1875, Saint-Saëns met Peter Tchaikovsky while the Russian composer was in the midst of composing Swan Lake. They hit it off so well, having a mutual interest in ballet, that they ended up dancing one together privately on the empty stage of the Moscow Conservatory.
  • Barnyard Symphony: In the 1995 movie Babe, the song "If I Had Words," which Farmer Hoggett sings while nursing his pig back to life, takes its melody from Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3.
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Explore the Music

Saint-Saëns is often stereotyped as a “conservative,” meaning that his models — Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann — weren’t cutting edge by the 1860s. Still, his music is satisfyingly Romantic, his melodies are often charming, and his skill at counterpoint was exceptional. He wrote music in every major genre.

  • Totally organ-ic: No one has written a more successful work for organ and orchestra than Saint-Saëns in his Third Symphony. 
  • Swan’s out of the bag: Saint-Saëns forbade the performance of all but “The Swan” movement of Carnival of the Animals, thinking that its lightweight character might compromise his reputation. As a result, we’ll never know whether the sly parodies of other composers’ music within the suite would have caused anyone offense. The “Aquarium” movement has been used in at least eight feature films, most notably Days of Heaven (1978).
  • Concerto magic: The highly popular Second Piano Concerto is distinguished by its memorable themes and the magical contrast, in the first movement, of a Bachlike prelude and a soaring melody. While rarely performed, his Fourth Piano Concerto in C Minor is equally effective, and is influenced by Mozart's C-Minor Concerto (No. 24). The Third Violin Concerto is less overtly flashy than Saint-Saëns’ other concertos, though it has plenty of drama and lyricism.
  • The challenge of the new: Saint-Saëns was born just two years after Johannes Brahms. The challenging new-music lions of his youth were Berlioz, Wagner, and Liszt, and he recognized the genius of all of them. In fact, Saint-Saëns introduced Liszt’s tone poems to France in the 1870s. After 1871, he began to be troubled by Wagner and particularly by his French disciples and apologists. Eventually, he became an outspoken opponent of Wagnerism.
  • What’s old is new: Like Brahms, Saint-Saëns was devoted to classic composers. He used his time in London in 1871 to study Handel manuscripts, lent a hand in the Bach revival, and championed Mozart, becoming possibly the first pianist to perform all of Mozart’s concertos in public. He also showed an interest in French Baroque dances.
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