Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (9 October 1835 – 16 December 1921) was a French composer, organist, conductor, and pianist of the Romantic era. He is known especially for The Carnival of the Animals, Danse macabre, Samson and Delilah (Opera) , Piano Concerto No. 2, Cello Concerto No. 1, Havanaise, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and his Symphony No. 3 (Organ Symphony).
Saint-Saëns was born in Paris, France, on 9 October 1835. His father, a government clerk, died three months after his birth. He was raised by his mother, Clémence, with the assistance of her aunt, Charlotte Masson, who moved in. Masson introduced Saint-Saëns to the piano, and began giving him lessons on the instrument. At about this time, age two, Saint-Saëns was found to possess perfect pitch. His first composition, a little piece for the piano dated 22 March 1839, is now kept in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Saint-Saëns's precocity was not limited to music. He learned to read and write by age 3, and had some mastery of Latin by the age of seven. His first public concert appearance occurred when he was five years old, 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 hands and fingers but not the arms. At ten years of age, Saint-Saëns gave his debut public recital at the Salle Pleyel, with a performance of 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 Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas from memory. Word of this incredible concert spread across Europe, and as far as the United States with an article in a Boston newspaper.
In the late 1840s, Saint-Saëns entered the Conservatoire de Paris, where he studied organ and composition, the latter under Fromental Halévy. Saint-Saëns won many top prizes and gained a reputation that resulted in his introduction to Franz Liszt, who would become one of his closest friends. At the age of sixteen, Saint-Saëns wrote his first symphony; his second, published as Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major, was performed in 1853 to the astonishment of many critics and fellow composers. Hector Berlioz, who also became a good friend, famously remarked, Il sait tout, mais il manque d'inexpérience ("He knows everything, but lacks inexperience").
For income, Saint-Saëns played the organ at various churches in Paris, with his first appointment being at the Saint-Merri in the Beaubourg area. 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. He also composed a famous piece called Danse Macabre at this time.
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's 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's 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, the Franco-Prussian War, despite being over in barely six months, left an indelible mark on the composer. He was relieved from fighting duty as one of the favourites of a relative of emperor Napoleon III, but fled nonetheless to London for several months when the Paris Commune broke out in the besieged Paris of winter 1871, his fame and societal status posing a threat to his survival. In the same year, 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 such as 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, nearing forty, Saint-Saëns married Marie Laure Emile Truffot, who was just 19. They had two sons, both of whom died in 1878, within six weeks of each other, one from an illness, the other upon falling out of a fourth-story window (as the composer, approaching his house, watched). For the later death Saint-Saëns blamed his wife, and when they went on vacation together in 1881 he simply disappeared one day. A separation order was enacted, but they never divorced.
From 1877 to 1889, he lived at 14, rue Monsieur-le-Prince, and the apartment house is marked by a plaque.
In 1886 Saint-Saëns produced two of his most renowned compositions: The Carnival of the Animals and Symphony No. 3, dedicated to Franz Liszt, who 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's mother died, driving the mourning composer away from France to the Canary Islands under the alias "Sannois". Over the next several years he travelled around the world, visiting exotic locations in Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. Saint-Saëns chronicled his travels in many popular books using his nom de plume, Sannois. (What is little known today is the fact that the composer also wrote poems and published them in a collection called Rimes familieres in 1890. Probably the finest poem by Saint-Saens is "La Libellule" ["The Dragonfly"].)
In 1908, he had the distinction of being the first celebrated composer to write a musical score to a motion picture, The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (L'assassinat du duc de Guise), directed by Charles Le Bargy and André Calmettes, adapted by Henri Lavedan, featuring actors of the Comédie Française. It was 18 minutes long, a considerable run time for the day.
In 1915, Saint-Saëns traveled to San Francisco and guest conducted the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, one of two world's fairs celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal.
Saint-Saëns continued to write on musical, scientific and historical topics, travelling frequently before spending his last years in Algiers. Saint-Saens was made a Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur in 1868; and eventually, in 1913, he attained France's highest award, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d'honneur. A street in Paris and in Marseilles is named in his honor.
Saint-Saëns died of pneumonia on 16 December 1921 at the Hôtel de l'Oasis in Algiers. His body was repatriated to Paris, honoured by state funeral at La Madeleine, and interred at Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.
aint-Saëns's early start and his long life provided him with time to write hundreds of compositions; during his career, he wrote many dramatic works, including four symphonic poems, and thirteen operas, of which Samson et Dalila and the symphonic poem Danse macabre are among his most famous. In all, he composed over 300 works and was the first major composer to write music specifically for the cinema, for Henri Lavedan's film The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (Op. 128, 1908).
Saint-Saëns wrote five symphonies, although only three of these are numbered. He withdrew the first, written for a Mozartian-scale orchestra, and the third, a competition piece. His symphonies are a significant contribution to the genre during a period when the French symphonic tradition was otherwise in decline. Saint-Saëns also contributed voluminously to the French concertante literature; he wrote five piano concertos, three violin concertos, two cello concertos, and about twenty smaller concertante works for soloist and orchestra, including a colorfully orchestrated piano fantasy, Africa; the Havanaise and the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso for violin and orchestra; and the Morceau de concert for harp and orchestra. Of the concertos, the Second Piano Concerto is one of the most popular of virtuoso piano concertos, and the Third Violin Concerto and First Cello Concerto also remain popular.
In 1886, he wrote his final symphony, the Symphony No. 3, avec orgue (with organ), one of his best-known works. A motif from the third became the inspiration for the 1978 song If I Had Words by Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley. Aided by the monumental symphonic organs built in France by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, at that time the world's foremost organ builder, this work demonstrates the spirit of "gigantism" and the confidence of France in the Belle Époque at the end of the 19th century, a period that produced the Eiffel Tower and the Universal Exposition at Paris. The confident Maestoso fourth movement perhaps reflects the confidence of Europe in its technology, its science, its "age of reason". He was frequently named as "the most German of all the French composers", perhaps due to his use of counterpoint.
Also in 1886, Saint-Saëns completed The Carnival of the Animals, which was first performed privately on 9 March. In contrast with the work's later popularity, Saint-Saëns forbade complete performances of it shortly after its première, allowing only one movement, Le cygne (The Swan) for cello and two pianos, to be published in his lifetime. Carnival was written as a musical jest, and Saint-Saëns believed it would damage his reputation as a serious composer. In fact, since its posthumous publication, this work's imagination and musical brilliance have impressed listeners and critics. In 1950, poet Ogden Nash wrote verses to introduce the various movements and these have sometimes been used in concerts and recordings of the music.
Saint-Saëns also wrote wrote a number of solo organ works including six preludes and fugues for organ, three in Op. 99 and three in Op. 109, of which Op. 99, no. 3 in E flat major is most often performed.
The opera Hélène was composed by Saint-Saëns for the great Australian soprano, Dame Nellie Melba, in 1904. Unstaged after its premiere in Monaco, it was performed in the soprano's home city (Melbourne) during January 2008.
One of Saint-Saëns's symphonic poems, Le rouet d'Omphale, Op. 31, became famous to a new generation of listeners beginning in 1937 through its use of the ominous middle section of it as the theme to the long-running radio program, The Shadow.