La Belle Epoque (3) – Saint Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1835 with his father, a government clerk, dying three months after the birth. He was an only child and raised by two people his mother and her aunt who moved in at the time. It is not generally recognized that Saint-Saëns was probably the most awesome child prodigy in the history of music. It was the aunt who gave Saint-Saëns his first piano lessons, aged two. At about this time he was found to have perfect pitch. His first composition, a little piece for the piano in 1839 when he was three and a half is now kept in the Bibliotèque Nationale de France. Saint-Saëns’s precociousness was not limited to music. He learned to read and write by the time he was three, 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 study in-depth the full score of Don Giovanni. 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 (K.450), and various pieces by Handel, 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 America. So eat your heart out Daniel Barenboim, you weren’t the only one.

In the late 1840s, Saint-Saëns entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied organ and composition and won many top prizes. He soon gained a reputation that resulted in an introduction to Liszt who would become one of his closest friends. He was sixteen when he wrote his first symphony. It is not numbered and it is his second which was published as his Symphony No. 1 and 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”). The truth in that remark is that throughout his long career the music of Saint-Saëns always sounds thoroughly professional and finished and, whatever its character, there is never any sense of his having had an off day.

Saint-Saëns’ first professional engagements came from playing the organ at various churches in Paris. He started off in the Beaubourg area (Les Halles). In 1857 at age 22 he gained 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. Still, as we shall see, Saint-Saëns did not view organ playing as his be all and end all but as a job, and once given the opportunity, which he eventually was, he was glad to hand it over to someone else.

From 1861 to 1865, Saint-Saëns took up the only teaching position he ever had, that as professor of piano at the École Niedermeyer. With the ultra conservative reputation of Niedermeyer who had just died, Saint-Saëns raised eyebrows by adding contemporary music—Liszt, Gounod, Schumann, Berlioz, and Wagner—to the school’s equally conservative curriculum. His most successful students at the Niedermeyer were Messager and Fauré, the latter being Saint-Saëns’s favourite pupil and soon his closest friend whom we will examine in a separate note on him.


We have seen how multi-faceted Saint-Saëns was as a child. Precocity can disappoint but not so in the case of Saint-Saëns. From an early age, he studied geology, archaeology, botany, and lepidopterology, (moths and butterflies to you). I had to look that one up. So, just in case, I thought I would save you the bother, crossword addicts of the class excluded. He was an expert at mathematics and held discussions with Europe’s finest scientists. He also wrote scholarly articles on acoustics, occult sciences, Roman theatre decoration, and ancient instruments. He was into philosophy and wrote his philosophical work, Problèmes et Mystères, which spoke of science and art replacing religion. His literary achievements included Rimes Familières, a volume of poetry, and for the theatre, a successful farce. In the field of astronomy he became a member of The Société Astronomique de France. He gave lectures on mirages, had a telescope made to his own specifications, and he even planned concerts to correspond with astronomical events such as solar eclipses. I have in my own record collection a poem by Saint-Saëns entitled “To the Conquerors of the Air”, set to music by him for women’s chorus. We tend to have a distrust of all-rounders, those brilliant people who seem to know it all. But wouldn’t the world be a duller place without the Leonardo’s, the Constant Lamberts, the Noel Cowards, the likes of the Stephen Fry’s and yes, the Camille Saint-Saëns’s too?

Saint-Saëns was fortunate in being relieved from active duty during the Franco-Prussian war but it was a grim time and became worse during the Paris Commune in the winter of 1871. He felt himself threatened and his fame and standing posed him as a possible target. So he decided to make for London where he resided for several months until the Commune was put down. Soon after his return he led the way in founding the Société Nationale de Musique in order to promote a new and specifically French music group of composers . (see also my note on Fauré who became its secretary). The Society premiered works by members such as, César Franck, Édouard Lalo, Fauré and Saint-Saëns himself, who served as the society’s co-president.

He still remained at this time chief organist at the Madeleine. Oddly enough the pastor wanted him to produce good tunes which would please a fashion-conscious congregation whose tastes were being nurtured at the Opera-Comique. But Saint-Saëns objected to this. He was, it seems, considered a bit stuffy and with a reputation for being somewhat austere. His aim in life was to get out of organ duties as soon as he felt he could earn sufficient to support himself from composing and performing.  In 1875, nearing forty, Saint-Saëns married Marie Laure Emile Truffot, who was just 19. To begin with all went well. Their first son, André, was born soon after the marriage and the following year there was a further one on the way. In 1877, twenty years after taking up his position as organist at the Madeleine, Saint-Saëns resigned the post. At the same time his lease in Central Paris was expiring and he was helped in finding a new home across the river by a wealthy friend and admirer, Albert Lubon, chief of Paris’s postal services. This gentleman was a fan of Saint-Saëns and had been a regular guest at the composer’s Monday musical evenings. Saint-Saëns had honoured Lubon by dedicating one of his early operas to him. It was Libon who generously offered the finance for a fourth floor flat near the river for Saint-Saëns, his pregnant wife and child to move into. With this new found freedom from the Madeleine, Saint-Saëns could happily take off on a concert tour through France, Switzerland, Holland and England. However on his return he was to learn that Albert Lubon had died. There was a greater surprise. Lubon had left in his will to Saint-Saëns a legacy of 100,000 francs. Wow. Originally he had imposed a condition that Saint-Saëns should first compose a requiem to be performed on the first anniversary of Lubon’s death. However Lubon had had second thoughts and had removed that condition. Even so, Saint-Saëns felt a debt of gratitude – who wouldn’t when coming into 100,000 francs? – and decided towards the end of the year to honour the original wish and to compose the requiem, which he did at great speed within a period of eight days. So, the requiem did get its first performance as Lubon had first stipulated, at St Sulpice on 22nd May 1878 with Widor playing the organ.

Now however comes the sorry sequel with the sting in the tail. Six days later, the 28 May, the older of the two sons, André, was playing in their fourth floor flat when he fell from the fourth floor open window and was killed. Saint-Saëns was devastated and this was made worse when only six weeks later the second boy, Jean, aged 6 months, also died, of natural causes, a case of infant mortality. Comparison has been made to the stranger who commissioned Mozart’s requiem and the grim premonition of death associated with that. An even closer comparison can be made to Mahler composing his song cycle based on poems by Ruckert, Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the death of Children). Alma Mahler felt a deep sense of superstition and revulsion which was borne out when one of their daughters died soon afterwards. In his case Saint-Saëns blamed his wife for the first death and one can only guess at the ensuing recrimination, the rows and the silences as they ploughed on until one day in 1881 when they were on holiday he simply disappeared one day. She returned to her family and he went back to live with his mother with whom he lived until she died. They never divorced or went through the process of a judicial separation. They were never to see each other again.

Saint-Saëns was devastated when his mother died in 1888, and he moved from France to the Canary Islands under the alias “Sannois”. He spent much of his time in travelling around the world, visiting exotic places in Europe, North Africa, South East Asia, and South America. He chronicled his travels in many popular books using Sannois as his nom de plume.

At the beginning of his career Saint-Saëns was considered one of France’s musical revolutionaries but he became known as he grew older as an arch conservative. The problem was that he did not change with the times as did Fauré for instance. In the world of technology Saint-Saëns was modern; writing poems about aviators and writing background music for the new fangled cinema. In 1908 he became the first composer of note to write a musical score for a motion picture, The Assassination of the Duke of Guise, featuring actors of the Comédie Française. It was a mere 18 minutes long, but by the standards of the day; a considerable time.

But in music he stood still. He had his friends, Liszt and Fauré in particular; but he began to make enemies and made no secret of his contempt of those he did not like. He could not stand Franck’s music nor that of the stuck up, Vincent D’Indy. His nose was put out of joint when Massenet was elected a member of the “Institut” and not Saint-Saëns. Massenet sent a telegram to Saint-Saëns saying “My dear colleague the Institut has made a terrible mistake” to which Saint-Saëns wired a reply “I entirely agree with you”. When eventually Saint-Saëns did get elected he made sure that Debussy was not. Pierre Lalo, music critic, and son of the composer, Édouard Lalo described Saint-Saëns with his lisp as saying “I have thtayed in Parith to thpeak ill of Debuthy and hith Pelléath et Mélithande.” The personal animosity was mutual with Debussy getting his oar in with : “I have a horror of sentimentality, and I cannot forget that its name is Saint-Saëns”. Yet as Harold C Schonberg pointed out, he was not only a progressive in his day with the founding of Société Nationale de Musique in 1871 but stood godfather to an entire new generation of French composers between 1870 and 1900.

If Debussy was a bit too much for him there was no chance on earth with Stravinsky. Saint-Saëns went to the notorious first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps and walked out. He was not the only one of course.

As a composer, Saint-Saëns is remembered chiefly for works such as The Carnival of the Animals (and don’t forget the Swan) which was not published in full until after his death. It had been written for a private party and Saint-Saëns feared it would affect his reputation as a serious composer, the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin and orchestra, the opera Samson and Delilah (but please Matthew don’t play the dreaded Bacchanal with its phoney belly dance), the symphonic poem Danse Macabre, the Symphony No. 3 with organ; the second, fourth and fifth piano concertos; the third violin concerto and the first cello concerto. There is also the Rouet d’Omphale which gets an outing on the BBC once in a while. The Symphony no 3, the Organ Symphony remains the most popular. It was in fact written as a symphony with organ but in the 1970’s it was recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in its home hall under Barenboim whilst the organ was recorded separately at the Madeleine and the two recordings streamed. Saint-Saëns might well have approved. I don’t.

Saint-Saëns spent his last years in Algeria where he died of pneumonia in December 1921. Where therefore more fitting for his funeral than the Madeleine? There, the whole of the State establishment and the Music establishment congregated as befitted one of such repute. Doubtless those in attendance had their invitation cards. There was however one lady in her sixties who limped in dressed in black and veiled. She had no invitation card and the stewards questioned her as to who she was. She replied “I am Madame Saint-Saëns and I have come to see my husband buried.” She had not seen her husband for thirty years, since they had separated after the tragic deaths of their children, but she had come to do her duty. She lived on as his widow until 1950 when she died at the age of 94.

 This was the third composer in the series La Belle Epoque presented by Matthew in 2012

Note written by Lionel J L