Charles Camille Saint-Saens

Charles Camille Saint-Saens was born in Paris, October 9, 1835.

He began the study of music at seven years of age with Stamaty and continued it under Maleden and Halevy (composition), and Benoist (organ).

In 1853 he was appointed organist of the Church of St. Mary, and in 1858-70 presided at the organ of the Madeleine.

In 1906-07 he visited the United States.

His operas proved to least successful of his writings, and it is as an instrumental composer that he became widely known.

In this field his works include four “symphonic poems”, three symphonies, of which the C minor is the best known, concertos for pianoforte and violin, a quintet, a quartet, and two trios, for piano and strings, and some church music.

Charles Camille Saint-Saens

As Written By Henry E. Krehbiel in 1907

saint-saens1Glancing over my scrapbook I find that, in a review of the second concert with Charles Camille Saint-Saens gave in New Yo0rk on the occasion of his recent visit I committed myself to the statement that in the minds and hearts of the music lovers of America he had, for a score of years, occupied a position as the finest, sanest, soundest and most versatile French musician of the nineteenth century. Perhaps there was a little too much of personal equation in the utterance, but I had been an ardent admirer of his music for a longer period than that mentioned, and had hoped for a long time to see him welcomed personally in the country which he visited so tardily. Had he come to us when not only his fame but his capacities were at there zenith, and before the head-long progress of music (let me use the term now in its popular sense,) had wrought so great a change in musical appreciation as we have witnessed since the advent of Richard Strauss in Germany and Cesar Franck in France I have no doubt the phrase would have met with general acclaim.

Charles Camille Saint-Saens Eminence as a Composer

Even now I am unable to see that his eminence has seriously been shaken either by his early contemporaries or the revolutionary young hot heads of his country who affect to look upon his compositions as archaic in thought and manner. Musical taste has unquestionably been set adrift the world over, but those of us whose experiences go back over a generation are still keeping our eyes on the old moorings, and are clinging to the belief, and also the hope that, after the turbulent and aimless wanderings of today are over, there will be a return to them, and the lofty and refining delights which they typify. Much has come into the art of music since old Galuppi told dr. Burney that “vaghezza, chiarezza e buona modulazione” (pleasure, brightness and good modulation) were its highest elements; but all that has come in is not good, nor will it permanently be made to seem good by mere extravagant expenditure of epithet on the part of the champions of all things new. Real progress is spiral, not longitudinal, and contempt for concepts of beauty which have endured for centuries are not likely to be overthrown in a decade or two.

And so I am able to laud the sanity, the soundness, and the versatility in Charles Camille Saint-Saens’ music, which I thought I recognized when I made acquaintance with his pianoforte concerto in G minor, his “Samson and Delilah,” his second symphony, at least two of his symphonic poems (“Le Rouet d’Omphale” and “Danse Mecabre”), the “Eighteenth Psalm,” and much of his chamber music. And I am still inclined to subscribe to the dictum of Dr. Von Bulow, that as musician qua musician, he had, thirty years ago, the finest equipment of any man of his time. Yet I have heard much of his music which left me unmoved, and whose mere intellectuality failed to impress me as admirable. But is not that the case will all composers who have written much!

Recognition from Contemporary Musicians

saint-saens2Long years ago, Dr. Hanslick, in discussing the works of the French opera writers who gave brilliancy to the third quarter of the nineteenth century, said that while the works of German composers in this field were either gold or bronze, those fo their French contemporaries were uniformly silver. The metaphor was apposite, and applies also to the instrumental compositions of Charles Camille Saint-Saens, if not to all his operas. In versatility, at least, Charles Camille Saint-Saens has had no peer among his fellows in France. It was back in 1867, when, after having twice failed to win the Prix de Rome, he carried off the prize offered by the Commissioners of the International Exposition with his Cantata “Las Noces de Promethee,” that Berlioz proclaimed him as one of the greatest musicians of the epoch. That was, perhaps, the first large and significant recognition that he had received. It was not long after that, that Dr. Von Bulow gave private utterances to his convictions that intellectually the French composer was the greatest living musician, save Wagner and Liszt. It is noteworthy that these dicta were pronounced by musicians who were companions of Saint-Saens in his triumphs, and also in his failures.

When Charles Camille Saint-Saens became a member of the Institute as the successor of Henri Reber, he enjoyed a distinction among the most distinguished musicians of his day, similar to that enjoyed by Berlioz in his. In the department of orchestral music his compositions outnumbered all of those of his fellow Academicians combined. Save for the fact that Berlioz was not a composer of chamber music the parallel between the two men is singularly close. Like Berlioz, Saint-Saens followed the lead of romantic Germany for a space, then though it necessary for his own individuality to turn back with a cry of protest; yet, like Berlioz, he achieved his finest successes in the field in which Germany has always been supreme – that of instrumental music. Like Berlioz, he hungered and thirsted for the rewards which the lyric theater bestows, and, as was the case with his prototype, he has been turned away all but empty handed. Like Berlioz, he has supplemented his work as a creative musician with critical writings for journalistic literature. Again, like Berlioz, he found comfort in admiration for Liszt, when constrained to part company with Wagner.

National Feeling

I have never been able wholly to believe that Saint-Saens was entirely swayed by artistic or disinterested motives, when, in 1884, he took sides with Rochefort and the Parisian mob against the production of “Lohengrin” at the Opera Comique; but that may have eased his conscience by feeling that what he was doing for himself he was also doing for his colleagues. It became plain to me when I first studied the actions of the French contingent in the audiences at Bayreuth, that if Wagner once got within the doors of a Parisian opera house it would soon be all day with Messrs. Massenet, Saint-Saens and all their compatriots save Gounod. It was something like a patriotic duty to keep the German out, just as it was a patriotic duty (but one less tinctured with selfishness) to habilitate the neglected Berlioz after the results of the Franco-Prussian war had made all things German hateful in Paris – even German music. France had to find a symphonist of her own and found Berlioz, who had long been acclaimed in the enemy’s country.

What measure of success Charles Camille Saint-Saens operas have had they have found in France. In America “Samson and Delilah” has been given only once with operatic dress, though it ranks as the most popular of modern works with the oratorio societies. It has not had to reckon with a Court Chamberlian here, as it has in England, but the validity of the reasons which have kept it in the concert room are obvious and convincing. The dramatist was sunk in the musician when Saint-Saens wrote this brilliant score. The subject of “Henry VIII” made a wider appeal, as was proved by the fact that it speedily was accepted for performance at the opera houses of Brussels, Prague, London, and some of the Italian cities, but all of it that has endured is the ballet music with its echoes of English, Scotch and Irish airs. “Ascanio,” produced at the Grand Opera, in 1890 is interesting in a way, because the part of the heroine was sung by a young American artist who has filled a large part in the public eyes since – Mme. Emma Eames.

The Wide Range of Charles Camille Saint-Saens Creative Work

saint-saens3In one respect Charles Camille Saint-Saens stands alone not only amongst French composers, but amongst his contemporaries, the world over. Run over the list of his countrymen whose careers have been more or less synchronous with his, and how one-sided are their labors compared to his; Boieldieu, Auber, Herold, Halevy, Adam, Thomas, Gounod, Masse, Delibes, Bizet, Reyer, Massenet – all composers of operas, and only operas. Berlioz, Franck, Lalo and Dubois, are his only associates in the wider territory of the symphony, oratorio, and chamber music, and none of these could stand beside him as a virtuoso, in fact, in his versatility, he is nearer to Mozart than any musician who has lived since the end of the eighteenth century. He has composed symphonies, symphonic poems, operas, incidental dramatic music, oratorios, masses, chamber music, concertos for the pianoforte, songs and scores of works that can not easily be classified. That his facility has frequently been fatal need not be denied. In this he bears a likeness to Rubenstein, who would have been twice as great a composer as he is now counted had he written one-half as many works as he did. The faculty of self-criticism is an asset whose value is appreciated only by geniuses of the highest rank.

His Orchestral Works

Of his orchestral compositions I am disposed to think that the symphonic poems will endure longest. Three of them “Danse Macabre,” “Phaeton” and “Le Rouet d’Omphale” have held their places on our programs ever since they were written. For decades that had only two or three of Liszt’s compositions as rivals in their class, and now they share their popularity only with those works and Richard Strauss’s pieces of the same genre. The prelude to “Le Deluge,” which is the most significant part of that composition, has also maintained itself as an independent composition, as have the ballets from “Henry VIII,” and “Etienne Marcel,” and the “suite Algerienne.” But for a reason that eludes me his second symphony, in A minor, is a stranger, I believe, to all programs except those of New York. Dr. Leopold Damrosch brought out the charming little work – a sinfonietta rather than a symphony – shortly after its publication in 1878, and when M. Colonne came from Paris to conduct the New York Philharmonic Society, in the season 1904-1905, he included it in his selections. I confess to a greater fondness for it than for the much more pretentious symphony in C minor, which has been more frequently played in New York, and which the composer himself chose for one of the concerts which he gave in connection with Mr. Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra. It is a singularly winsome work, small in dimensions, but full of dainty conceits, deliciously expressed, fresh as a May morning, making no parade of learned devices, yet full of them. I can think of no greater contrast in the works of a composer than between it and the symphony in C minor, to which, it is plain, Saint-Saens attaches immeasurable larger importance.

This work had had a number of performances before it was given last November under the direction of Walter Damrosch with the composer at the organ. If we are to believe Saint-Saens biographer, Dr. Neitzel, this symphony is a tribute to Liszt, a circumstance which he thinks accounts for the use of the organ and the ecclesiastical uplift in the work. The score is indeed dedicated to the memory of the master whom the composer substituted for Wagner in his affections when the latter seemed to be threatening the portals of the National Academy, but, if it was written as such a tribute, it was a strange case of premonition, for it had already been performed in London a fortnight before Liszt died. Still I am willing to believe that Liszt was in the composer’s mind when he wrote the work, for in its concluding pages and in its unusual form, it awakens memories of the great pianist composer.

It is the most marked example of what may be called Saint-Saens “modernity.” In his operas some obeisance is made to Wagner’s system of thematic symbols, but on the whole they move in the ruts worn by the historical grand opera of France. But in this symphony the composer aimed at a departure from the ideals for which most of his instrumental works stand. When he sent it forth into the world he sent with it an explanation of his purposes, which was interesting if not entirely satisfactory. In it, he said, he had striven to avoid “the endless resumptions and repetitions which more and more tend to disappear from instrumental music under the influence of increasingly developed musical culture,” and added that he believed that symphonic works “should now be allowed to benefit by the progress of modern instrumentation.” These were brave words in 1886, or at least, they sounded like brave words, but in the light of what has been done since, they have lost all the little potency which they derived at the time from the inclusion of a pianoforte (which is utterly ineffective) and an organ in the orchestral apparatus. Even in the matter of dimensions and interrelation of parts, which distinguished this symphony, there is nothing half so revolutionary in it as the composer professed to think. But there is much noble and serious thought in the work, and a splendor of beauty in the Poco Adagio section which pleads for it more eloquently by far than the composer’s protestations of a wish to change the old order of things.

A Student of the Masters

In conclusion let me quote some words written for the Century Magazine fourteen years ago in anticipation of a visit to the United States then projects but long, too long, delayed: “in characterizing him as the best grounded of living musicians, with the possible exception of Brahms, I have reference not only to his more complete knowledge of the mechanics of compositions, his marvelous mastery of harmony, counterpoint, construction and orchestration, but also to his wonderful assimilation of the spirit of all the great musicians from Bach to Wagner. That there has been a devouter student, or a more ardent lover of the music of Bach than Saint-Saens since Mendelssohn I do not believe. No other composer has given such beautiful and convincing testimony to that study and love as has he in the introduction to his concerto for the pianoforte in G minor and in the all too little known “Psalm XIX” (no. 18 in the Protestant Psalm). They are the fine flower and fruit of his early organ study – nor has there been a more learned and versatile composer. If he follows Berlioz in extravagance of instrumental apparatus and looseness of form in his symphony – C minor, he leads him in dignity and solidity of constructive invention, and uses, like a master, the instrumental devices to which Berlioz pointed the way.”

Biographical Sketch of Charles Camille Saint-Saens

saint-saens4Charles Camille Saint-Saens was born at Paris October 9, 1835. He was no exception to the ordinary laws of heredity which have had peculiar force in music. A grandfather, on the maternal side, who lived in the early part of the eighteenth century was known as the maker of a kind of harmonium. His great-aunt with whom he was a great favorite, and whom he used to call his “grandma,” was endowed with a more than usual understanding of music. And there is reason to believe that his mother early dedicated him to music. At all events his precociousness in music seems to have been on a par with that of Mozart. As a baby of less than two he listened with the most careful attention to the sounds of bells, the rolling of carriages, the sounds of the hammers of the blacksmith, the chirping of insects, which he tried to imitate in pitch as soon as he was old enough to go to the piano. At two and a half he was given lessons in piano playing and at three he was learning musical notation. His first efforts in composition came when he was five years old. His teacher in piano playing was Stamaty; in theory, Maleden. His chief pleasure however, was in improvisation. So marked was his progress that in 1846, when he was but ten and a half years old, he aroused the greatest enthusiasm in a concert at the Pleyel Hall. The program, in which Handel, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven figured, shows the strict school in which he was educated. Meanwhile his general education was by no means neglected. This was particularly the case with the sciences (for which he has never lost his fondness, notably for astronomy and natural history), in which he showed the same desire for knowledge, the same quickness and power in comprehension that he had displayed in music; indeed he frequently incurred the risk, in his interest in some scientific problem or the fate of some hero of antiquity, of neglecting his music. It was here that his watchful mother intervened and kept a correct balance in his studies. He always showed a great predilection for nature, remarkable in one brought up in a large city.

His musical education, as he advanced out of childhood was entrusted to the Conservatory, where he received instruction in organ playing from Benoist, in compositions from Halevy. In 1852 he competed for the Prix de Rome (Roman Prize), the goal of all ambitious conservatory students, but failed, a classmate who understood better how to follow the principles of the classroom teaching being awarded the prize. Strange as it may seem, Berlioz voted against him, as he explained later: “I did not vote for Saint-Saens. He knows everything, but he lacks melody.” It is the irony of fate that Berlioz, who in his younger days had inveighed so sharply against the decision of the judges, when it was adverse to him, in his turn failed to distinguish true talent from a pseudo manifestation.

Saint-Saens, less ambitious, perhaps less stubbornly tenacious, relinquished further contesting for the prize and accepted a position as church organist, and as piano teacher in the Niedermeyer School of Piano Playing. He was so fortunate as to have a chance to appear on a program at the Saint Ceclia concerts with a symphony (his first) which was very well received, until it became known that the composer was a fledgling of only seventeen. The opinions of the critics altered curiously; they now found in it weaknesses they had at first overlooked. A masterwork it is not, but it is fresh and charming in its invention.

In the meantime his days were occupied in Paris in providing for himself and his mother, his father having died when the boy was still a child. He made an important step forward professionally in 1858 when he was appointed organist at the Church of the Madeleine. He worked indefatigably here, writing works for the many occasions demanded by the Church calendar, and many of these pieces are among the best he has written. Many of them remain unpublished in the library of Madeleine, having been turned over by the composer with the understanding that they are not to be published until after his death. In 1870, through increasing recognition as a composer, he was able to give up the position to devote himself to concert work and composition.

From this time on his fame grew, his works were taken up by directors and by pianists, his operas received hearings, and his pen was kept busy with writing for the press, for he is skilled in that form of work also, a keen critic and a foe to pretense.

In later years his health failed somewhat and he was forced to spend his winters in the southern countries, sometimes Egypt, often in Algiers, but mostly in the Canary Islands. He is now in his seventy-second year. Last fall he made a memorable visit to the United States, conducting and playing, and everywhere received with genuine enthusiasm.