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Classical Composers A-Z: Camille Saint-Saens

Peter Wintersgill presents a brief word portrait of Camille Saint-Saens, said to be the greatest composer who wasn't a genius.

9th October, 1835, in Paris

Victor, Civil Servant, died of TB when son was two months old.

Clemence, carpenter's daughter.

An only child.

Childhood and Adolescence
Was taught the rudiments of piano playing by great aunt, who helped mother bring him up; first investigated the piano when three years old, obviously very talented from an early age. He was soon found to have absolute pitch. Had more formal piano lessons at eight, gave first public piano recital at 11. He entered Paris Conservatoire at 13 in 1848, studied organ and composition, gained class prize in 1851; wrote Ode to St. Cecilia in 1852, the first symphony in 1853 and the second symphony in 1855.

Early Adult Life
In 1852 he met and heard Liszt, who remained a friend for many years and had a great influence on his music. He held two organist posts in Paris, the Eglise St. Merry from 1853-1857, then the Madeline from 1857-1877. Although he became a Professor of piano at the Conservatoire in 1861 and taught several pupils including Faure, the time he actually spent teaching was limited. His output, though not profuse, was spread widely.

Thus he wrote three symphonies, five piano concertos (playing the solo parts himself), three violin concertos (number three in 1880), two cello concertos and four symphonic poems, including the Danse Macabre (1874). Apart from these he wrote 13 operas, the best being Samson and Delilah (1877), which had its premiere in Weimar, thanks to Liszt. His third Symphony, with organ, dedicated to Liszt, was written in 1886, as was the Carnival of the Animals, the premiere of which was not until 1922, the year after his death.

Later Adult Life
In 1875 at the age of 40 he married Marie Truffot aged only 19, despite strong opposition from her mother. They had two sons, both of whom died in infancy; the marriage itself collapsing soon after, in 1881.

During his long and distinguished career he travelled widely, on tours to Germany and Great Britain, which he visited several times. His first visit was in 1871, when he played the organ at the Albert Hall; he next came in 1886 for the premiere of his third symphony. On his last visit in 1893 he was awarded an honorary degree of Mus. Doc. by Cambridge University and played the organ and piano to Queen Victoria at Windsor.

His mother died in 1888 after a very short illness in her 80th year, a loss he felt very keenly. He became more conservative as he got older, having originally been rather progressive. His main contribution to the development of French Music was the encouragement he gave to orchestral music in the 19th Century, which was largely preoccupied with the stage.

His special gifts were the melodies and harmonies he wrote, rather than the construction of his works. He influenced Faure and Ravel, who carried on his style.

He received many honours in many countries, even a statue was erected in Dieppe during his lifetime. He never retired, but worked right on till the end. He finally died on 16th December, 1921, in his usual holiday resort of Algiers, aged 86.


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