HomeInterviewsComposersCamille Saint-Saëns: A Lasting Musical Legacy

Camille Saint-Saëns: A Lasting Musical Legacy

Camille Saint-Saëns was one of the most versatile French musicians. Born in 1835 in Paris and trained at the Paris Conservatoire, he contributed voluminously to every genre of French musical literature and influenced musical life in France as composer, teacher, pianist, organist, conductor, critic, chronicler, poet, and playwright. On the centenary of his death, Canadian musicologist and University of Montreal Professor Sabina Teller writes for Durand Salabert Eschig on what makes Saint-Saëns a composer that continues to inspire and influence across generations.
Disclaimer: the following blog contains excerpts from Sabina Teller’s SAINT-SAËNS’ LEGACY (1921-2021) written for and produced by Durand Salabert Eschig. No textual modifications have been made by musicroom.com, but text may appear in a different order from the original source.

Liszt considered Saint-Saëns the ablest and most gifted of contemporary composers, and Berlioz called him “one of the leading musicians of his time” after sitting on the jury during the Exhibition of 1867 that awarded Saint-Saëns its musical prize for Les Noces de Prométhée.
As early as 1876 Eduard Hanslick, the influential Austrian music critic, said of Saint-Saëns: “There is throughout the works of Saint-Saëns wit, humor, many formal qualities, a sharp liveliness of pace and, above all, his compositions reveal an eminent skill in construction, an extreme facility in handling all kinds of musical expression equally.” Camille Bellaigue, Parisian biographer and music critic, wrote in 1889: “If we had to characterize Mr. Saint-Saëns in two words, we would have to call him the best musician in France. There is no other who knows his craft and his art like the composer of Henry VIII, who excels like him in all genres, and who has, I am not saying more genius, but as much talent.” Jean Montargis referred to him, Rameau and Berlioz, as the greatest musicians France has ever known.
At the time of his death Gabriel Fauré claimed: “Numerous opinions have proclaimed Saint-Saëns the greatest musician of his time. During the first half of his long career he was, however, the contemporary of Berlioz and Gounod. Would it not be more exact, and not less glorious, to designate him the most complete musician we have ever had, complete to the point that we can only find a similar example among the great masters of long ago? His knowledge which knew no limits, his brilliant technique, his clear and acute sensibility, his conscience, the variety and astounding number of his works, do they not justify this title which makes him recognizable to everybody forever?”

Photo courtesy of Durand Salabert Eschig.

As a national hero, the French gave him a monumental funeral on 24 December 1921 which was subsequently succeeded by years of indifference. Later, on 14 July 1930, Arthur Dandelot wrote in the preface to his biography of Saint-Saëns: “I believe I have to publish this book at this moment because I find the disfavor, after a period of sometimes extravagant exaltation, in which Saint-Saëns’ music is now found, unjust and exaggerated.”
The turn of the tide occurred in the seventies. The movement, during the twentieth century, towards neo-classicism and objectivity succeeded in activating this renaissance and rehabilitating Saint-Saëns. New interest in his life and work started with the rebirth of intellectual curiosity. Several doctoral dissertations exploring his creative accomplishments commenced in the seventies with the piano works and the symphonies, followed by the chamber music, the organ works, the concertos and the songs. By the end of the century at least five new biographies had appeared, authored by James Harding (1965), Michael Stegemann (1988), Brian Rees (1999), Stephen Studd (1999), and Jean Gallois (2004). A catalogue raisonné of his complete works was launched (Sabina Teller Ratner, 2002) as well as a research guide (Timothy S. Flynn, 2003). New issues of his essays appeared as did translations of his articles in English and other languages.

Saint-Saens’s writing desk. Photo courtesy of Durand Salabert Eschig.

Photo courtesy of Durand Salabert Eschig.

His contractual publishers, Éditions Durand, produced new editions of his works in France. In other countries such as Germany, Hungary and the US where copyright laws permitted, the publications proliferated. A comprehensive critical edition of his entire œuvre is being undertaken. Various recording companies have produced complete or selected works in a single category e.g. the complete symphonies, the symphonic poems, the complete piano works, the complete violin works, the complete organ works, the complete works for the cello, the concerted works for the violin, the concerted works for the piano, collections of chamber works, the operas: Samson et Dalila, Henry VIII, La Princesse jaune, Hélène, Proserpine, Les Barbares, Étienne Marcel, Phryné, selections from Ascanio, Déjanire, ballets from Parysatis, Javotte and theatrical music from Antigone (1893), Andromaque (1902), La Foi (1909) as well as the first film music from L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908).
In considering the work of this great musician it is necessary to bear in mind that he does not belong to the generation of Debussy and Dukas, nor to that of Fauré and Vincent-d’Indy, but rather to that of Bizet, César Franck, and Massenet, all being born approximately within the same decade. His career was one of the longest, most active, the most enriched in musical history, starting with his precocious childhood when his compositional career began at age three. His great facility, his brilliance and his prodigious memory impressed both Liszt and Wagner early in his life.
As we assess Saint-Saëns’ achievements we are struck by his consummate knowledge, his technical mastery, his ease in producing in all genres, the great range and the all-encompassing nature of his work and the creative instrumentation. His productivity never diminished, nor was there a genre or form that he did not attempt— piano piece, mélodie, sonata, trio, quartet, quintet, septet and other kinds of chamber music, concertos, symphonies, symphonic poems, cantatas, oratorios, operas, ballets, and even film music. He was first and foremost a musician. Music was the centre of his being and the art and craft of music encompassed his life.

Photo courtesy of Durand Salabert Eschig.

Saint-Saëns’ perceptive and illuminating writing about life in Paris in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provide us with honest, colorful views of this era which are increasingly consulted by musicians, historians, and sociologists. Four volumes of controversial essays, Harmonie et Mélodie, Portraits et Souvenirs, École buissonnière, and Au courant de la vie, reveal the age in which Saint-Saëns lived, clarified by his insights, sentiments, and descriptions. Saint-Saëns was a clear thinker, a pungent writer, a sharp critic. His publications are attestations of his vigor and power.
Conductor François Xavier Roth summarizes his achievement: “The work of this composer which has often been called conservative or academic is abundantly filled with innovative passages. Here are a few: The passage in the immense work of Saint-Saëns which has always impressed me the most is the beginning of the Egyptian Concerto for piano, which I had heard when I was an adolescent with Jean-Philippe Collard and André Previn. I remember this disk, which I listened to until it wore out, very well. This Mediterranean passage in Saint-Saëns’ music was a shock for me; the harmony, the rhythm — it dances like a Mediterranean incantation. I was greatly impressed. I must certainly also mention Saint-Saëns as a composer of opera, be it in the Bacchanale of Samson et Dalila, with its magnificent arias, the duo of Ascanio or the opera Le Timbre d’argent that I directed later. Lastly, I would like to speak of the great C Major of the Symphony for Organ which begins the finale and is something unique, exceptional in all symphonic production.

Photo courtesy of Durand Salabert Eschig.

Saint-Saëns himself best summed up his personal contribution to the history of music. From Bône, 23 February 1901, he wrote to Durand: “I achieved the impossible dream of my youth, I attained my goal; I have lived long enough to leave works which have the chance of survival. You cannot write the history of the music of this time without at least mentioning them! I shall pass away with the awareness of having spent my time well. You must not be ungrateful towards your destiny.”
The significance of Saint-Saëns’ work in the 21st century may be measured by this single fact: his evocative melodies, captivating rhythms, and illuminating forms have written more than 20 compositions that remain in the mainstream repertoire: Samson et Dalila (the 3rd most popular French opera after Carmen and Faust); Violin concerto no. 3, Introduction et Rondo capriccioso, Havanaise— perennial favorites; Piano concerto in G minor, Piano concerto in C minor; Cello concerto no. 1, Trio op. 18, Quartet op. 41; Sonatas for solo instruments: violin, cello, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, all partnering with piano; Symphonic poems: Le Rouet d’Omphale, Phaéton, Danse macabre, La Jeunesse d’Omphale; Le Carnaval des animaux; Symphony no. 3.
As Saint-Saëns aptly divined: “There are works you remain in love with all your life; there are others that triumphantly resist all the vicissitudes of taste. It is these very rare works that are the true masterpieces, and even the greatest masters don’t create them every day.
By Sabina Teller Ratner for Durand Salabert Eschig
Originally published in SAINT-SAËNS’ LEGACY (1921-2021). Read more about Saint-Saëns’s life and learn from conductors François-Xavier Roth and Kent Nagano, organist Olivier Latry, pianist Marc-André Hamelin, violinist Andrew Wan and cellist Steven Isserlis on the intricacy and beauty of Saint-Saens’ writing, and the master’s control over the craft of composition.
Watch Durand Salabert Eschig’s video on Saint-Saëns’ legacy:

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