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Charles Camille Saint-SaŽns (IPA: [ʃaʁl.kamij.sɛ̃sɑ̃s]) (October 9, 1835December 16, 1921) was a French composer and performer.

Camille Saint-Saëns
Camille Saint-Saëns
Contents

Biography

Camille Saint-SaŽns' 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 the Twentieth century music.

Child Prodigy

Saint-SaŽns was born in Paris to a government clerk, who died only three months after his son's birth. His mother, Clťmence, sought the aid of her aunt, Charlotte Masson, who moved in and introduced Camille to the piano. One of the greatest 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 March 22, 1839, is now kept in the BibliothŤque nationale de France. Saint-SaŽns' 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 Don Giovanni. In 1842 Saint-SaŽns 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 he 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 Bach; as an encore he 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 he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied organ and composition, the latter under Jacques Halťvy. He won many top prizes, but 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, he 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-SaŽns' good friends, famously commented, "Il sait tout, mais il manque d'inexpťience" ("He knows everything, but lacks inexperience").

Middle Years

For income, Saint-SaŽns worked playing the organ at various churches in Paris. In 1857, he replaced Lefťbure-Wely at the eminent position of organist at the …glise de la Madeleine, which he kept until 1877. His weekly improvisations stunned the Parisian public and earned Liszt's 1866 observation that Saint-SaŽns was the greatest organist in the world.

From 1861 to 1865, Saint-SaŽns held his only teaching position as professor of piano at the …cole Niedermeyer. Here 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 Andrť Messager and Gabriel Faurť, who was Saint-SaŽns' favorite pupil and soon his closest friend.

Saint-SaŽns 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 theater decoration, and ancient instruments. He wrote a philosophical work, ProblŤmes et MystŤres, which spoke of science and art replacing religion; Saint-SaŽns' pessimistic and atheistic ideas foreshadowed Existentialism. Other literary achievements included Rimes familiŤes, a volume of poetry, and La Crampe des ťcrivains, 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 correpsond to astronomical events such as solar eclipses.

In 1870 Saint-SaŽns 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 (with Romain Bussine) the Sociťtť 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 Faurť, Cťsar Franck, …douard Lalo, and Saint-SaŽns himself, who served as the society's co-president. In this way, Saint-SaŽns became a powerful figure in shaping the future of French music.

In 1875, Saint-SaŽns married Marie-Laure Truffot and fathered two children, Andrť and Jean-FranÁois, who died within six weeks of each other in 1878. Saint-SaŽns left his wife three years later. The two never divorced, but lived the rest of their lives apart from one another. It has been suggested that Saint-SaŽns was involved in homosexual relationships later in life, though evidence of this is largely circumstantial. On being accused of at a social occasion, he is reported to have countered "Je ne suis pas homosexuel, je suis pťdťraste!"

Later Years

1886 brought two of Saint-SaŽns' greatest compositions: Le Carnaval des Animaux and the third symphony, dedicated to Franz Liszt, who had died that year. That same year, however, Vincent d'Indy and his allies had Saint-SaŽns removed from the Sociťtť Nationale de Musique. Two years later his mother died, driving the mourning composer away from France to the Canary Islands with the alias Sannois. Over the next several years he traveled the world, visiting exotic locations in Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. Saint-SaŽns chronicled his travels in many popular books written under the Sannois name.

Saint-SaŽns wrote on musical, scientific and historical topics, frequently travelling around before spending his last years in Algiers, Algeria. In recognition of his accomplishments, the government of France awarded him the Legion of Honour.

Camille Saint-SaŽns died of pneumonia on December 16, 1921, at the HŰtel de l'Oasis in Algiers. His body was brought back to Paris for a state funeral at La Madeleine and was buried in the CimetiŤre du Montparnasse, in Paris.

Legacy

Relationships to other composers

During his life, Saint-SaŽns was either a friend or enemy to Europe's most distinguished musicians. He stayed close to Franz Liszt until his death, and maintained a fast friendship with his pupil Gabriel Faurť until the end of his life. But despite being a great advocate for French music, Saint-SaŽns openly despised many of his fellow French composers such as Franck, d'Indy, and Jules Massenet. Saint-SaŽns also hated the music of Claude Debussy; he is reported to have told Pierre Lalo, "I have stayed in Paris to speak ill of Pellťas et Mťlisande." The personal animosity was mutual; Debussy quipped: "I have a horror of a sentimentality and I cannot forget its name is Saint-SaŽns." But on other occassions, Debussy also acknowledged an admiration for Saint-SaŽns' musical talents.

He had been an early champion of Richard Wagner's music in France, teaching his pieces during his tenure at the …cole Niedermeyer and premiering the March from Tannhšuser. He had stunned even Wagner himself when he sight-read the entire orchestral scores of Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, and Siegfried, prompting Hans von BŁlow to call him "the greatest musical mind" of the era. However, despite admitting appreciation for the power of Wagner's work, Saint-SaŽns defiantly stated that he was not an aficionado. In 1886, he was punished for some particularly harsh and anti-German comments on the Paris production of Lohengrin by losing engagements and receiving negative reviews throughout Germany. Later, after World War I, Saint-SaŽns angered both French and Germans with his inflammatory articles entitled Germanophilie, which ruthlessly attacked Wagner.

On May 29, 1913, Saint-SaŽns famously stormed out of the premiŤre of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps.

Reputation

Saint-SaŽns began his musical career as a musical pioneer, introducing France to the symphonic poem and championing the radical works of Liszt and Wagner in a time when Bach and Mozart were the norms. He had been the embodiment of artistic modernity during the 1850s and 1860s, but soon transformed himself into a crusty and somewhat bitter reactionary. By the time he entered the twentieth century, Saint-SaŽns was an ultra-conservative, fighting the influence of Debussy and Richard Strauss. This is hardly surprising—his career began while Chopin and Mendelssohn were in their prime, and ended at the dawn of the Jazz Age. But it is this crotchety image that endures.

As a composer, Saint-SaŽns has always bordered on the edge of obscurity. He is disparagingly known today as "the greatest second-rate composer" and "the greatest composer who was not a genius." He is remembered chiefly for his popular but critically unsuccessful works such as Samson et Dalila and Le Carnaval des Animaux.

Music

Style

Saint-SaŽns the composer is widely regarded as writing music that is elegant and technically flawless, but often uninspired. His works have been called logical and clean, polished, professional, and never excessive. His piano music, while not as deep or as challenging as some of his contemporaries, forms the stylistic connection between Liszt and Ravel. Though in later life he was thought of as old-fashioned, he had explored many new forms as well as reinvigorated older ones. His compositions are strongly fixed in the Classical tradition, and some consider him to be a forerunner of Neoclassicism.

In performance, Saint-SaŽns is said to have been "unequalled on the organ", and rivaled only by a few on the piano—Liszt himself is reported to have thought that Saint-SaŽns and himself were the two best pianists in Europe. However, Saint-SaŽns' concert style was restrained, subtle, and cool; he sat unmoving at the piano. His playing was marked by extraordinarily even scales and passagework, great speed, and aristocratic refinement. The recordings he left at the end of his life give glimpses of these traits. He was often charged of being unemotional and business-like, and so he was less memorable than other more charismatic performers. He was probably the first pianist to publicly perform a cycle of all the Mozart piano concertos. Throughout his life, he continued to play with the technique taught to him by Stamaty, which kept the performing strength in the hand and not the arm, and so the recordings he made in the 1910s are remarkable in that one can hear the pianistic technique of Kalkbrenner, which predates Chopin.

Musical Works

See: List of compositions by Camille Saint-SaŽns

Saint-SaŽns' eighty-six years provided him with time to write hundreds of compositions; during his long 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 three hundred works and was the first major composer to write music specifically for the cinema, for Henri Lavedan's film L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise.

In 1886 he wrote his Symphony No. 3, "avec orgue", that is, "with organ", perhaps the most famous of all his works. Aided by monumental symphonic organs built in France by Mr. Aristide Cavaillť-Coll, at that time the world's greatest organ builder, this work in particular is immersed in the spirit of "gigantism" of the dying XIX century, along with the Eiffel Tower, the Universal Exposition at Paris and the beginning of the "belle epoque". The Maestoso of the fourth movement is clearly an expression of the confidence of the European man in himself, in his technology, his science, his "age of reason" (somewhat ironically, the melody was later used as the basis for the theme music of the immensely popular film Babe). He was frequently named as "the most German composer of all the French composers", perhaps due to his fantastic skills exhibited in the construction of melodic passages.

Also in 1886, Saint-SaŽns completed Le Carnaval des Animaux, which was first performed on March 9th, 1886. Despite being very popular today, Saint-SaŽns forbade complete performances of it shortly after its premiŤre, only allowing one movement, "Le Cygne", a piece for cello and piano, to be published in his lifetime. The piece was written as a sort of musical jest, and Saint-SaŽns believed it would damage his "serious" reputation.

Saint-SaŽns also wrote six preludes and fugues for organ, three in op. 99 and three in op. 109, the most performed of which is the Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, op. 99, no. 3.

See also

References

da:Camille Saint-SaŽns de:Camille Saint-SaŽns es:Camille Saint-SaŽns fr:Camille Saint-SaŽns he:קמיל סן-סנס nl:Camille Saint-SaŽns ja:カミーユ・サン=サーンス no:Camille Saint-SaŽns pl:Camille Saint-SaŽns fi:Camille Saint-SaŽns

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