Celebrating Saint-Saëns - The Enigmatic French ComposerJan 27, 2022 12:49PM ● By ERIK ENTWISTLE
Last year marked the centenary of the death of the romantic French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). Such an occasion would normally usher in renewed interest and a fresh assessment for such a historically important figure. Indeed, the centenary encouraged me personally to reengage with his music after a long, if not intentional, hiatus. The pandemic, however, undoubtedly squelched many large-scale public performances of Saint-Saëns’s music that might have otherwise materialized. This lost opportunity is unfortunate, for more than 100 years after his death the composer remains something of an enigma, while his generous legacy of music still largely awaits more universal recognition.
Saint-Saëns’s name may not be a household word in the United States; first, you have to get comfortable with the difficult French pronunciation (merci, internet). Yet among his hundreds of works are some of Western classical music’s most famous, including the symphonic poem Danse Macabre (1874) with its signature opening discords on the solo violin, the biblical opera Samson and Delilah (1877), the magnificent Symphony No. 3 (Organ Symphony), and a “grand zoological fantasy” called The Carnival of the Animals (both written in 1886).
When you listen to a work by Saint-Saëns, you are given the privilege of interacting with one of history’s greatest musical minds. It is difficult even to comprehend the level of musical genius that Saint-Saëns possessed. He began performing at the piano and composing in early childhood, and by age 10 made his debut at the Salle Pleyel in Paris with concerti by Mozart and Beethoven. Such was his confidence that the young pianist offered to play any of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas from memory as an encore.
At the age of 13 Saint-Saëns entered the Paris Conservatory to study organ and composition, going on to enjoy a long career as a touring concert pianist, while also serving for two decades as organist at Paris’s famed Church of the Madeleine. His friend Franz Liszt, hearing him perform there, declared him the instrument’s greatest living proponent.
As a composer, Saint-Saëns was similarly prodigious, but stylistically his music is difficult to pigeonhole; he cultivated a balance between the more modernist stances of Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner and the earlier achievements of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, while also having to consider the tastes and expectations of the music-loving public in France at the time. Saint-Saëns coalesces these aspects into a kind of all-inclusive eclecticism, yielding music that is neither avant-garde nor backward-looking, but lives and breathes on its own terms—brilliant, charming, and often deeply beautiful.
If you’re not familiar with the music of Saint-Saëns, or need a refresher course, start with the celebrated works listed here. Among them is the Organ Symphony, commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and given a high-profile 1886 London premiere with the composer at the podium. It is arguably Saint-Saëns’s masterpiece; “I gave everything to it I was able to give,” he wrote after its completion. “What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.”
That same year saw the creation of another essential Saint-Saëns score that is a staple of modern-day family concerts: The Carnival of the Animals. This instrumental suite delightfully explores all kinds of musical humor and revels in its own sophisticated silliness. The humor is exceptionally good-natured and never wears thin, and the music is as lovable to me now as it was when I first heard it four decades ago. The composer does not spare himself from the hijinks, making fun of his own Danse Macabre, which he had composed 12 years earlier, by (mis)quoting it extensively in the movement entitled “Fossils.” Even the two pianists in the ensemble, which carry the lion’s share of the music, end up being treated like animals in a carnival, as they are made to practice their scales in the middle of the piece.
Not all of the animal depictions are just for laughs, though, as Saint-Saëns demonstrates in his achingly beautiful depiction of the swan, which is cast as a solo cello melody accompanied by the pianos. Apart from Danse Macabre, it’s Saint-Saëns’s most famous piece (the YouTube video featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma currently has more than 11 million views).
As he approached the end of his life, Saint-Saëns watched his style become irrelevant and out of fashion, his music displaced by the modernism of the younger generations, including Stravinsky and Debussy. Ironically, he ended up outliving his younger compatriot Debussy, who had taken French music in an altogether different direction. Saint-Saëns continued to compose right up until his death from a sudden heart attack at age 86 on December 16, 1921.
Despite (or perhaps because of) their anachronistic style, Saint-Saëns’s late works are among his most touching and lyrical, miraculously conveying depth with relatively simple means. They include three woodwind sonatas with piano (one each for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon) and another swan song, but this time the swan is metaphorical. In his final composition, an Album Leaf for piano (Opus 169), Saint-Saëns recalls the melodic style of his earlier cello masterpiece. Unconscious or accidental? Perhaps, but no less striking.
Pianist, instructor, and musicologist Erik Entwistle received an undergraduate degree in music from Dartmouth College. He earned a postgraduate degree in piano performance at Washington University in St. Louis and his doctorate in musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He teaches on Sanibel Island.