From Racine to Victor Hugo, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) drew on a rich literary world. As it has been reported recently, Camille Saint-Saëns is indeed underrated: ‘Saint-Saëns: unfashionable, underrated – and overdue for reappraisal’ (Stephen Moss, 2 Aug. 2021, The Guardian). It is almost as if he knew he would be. He banned the Carnival of the Animals during his lifetime so that people focus on his other works but, alas, after his death it is still his best-known.
Old Conservatoire, Paris, early19th century; at the junction of the rue Bergère and rue du Faubourg Poissonnière. The Conservatoire incorporated the adjacent buildings of the former Hôtel des Menus-Plaisirs. The composer was admitted to this renowned music academy at the age of thirteen.
Much more than a frivolous satirist, Saint-Saëns was a student of Romanticism and a gifted organist and pianist with a deep love of literature. Two pillars of French letters, Jean Racine and Victor Hugo, were particularly dominant for him. His collaboration with the librettist Louis Gallet, his friendship with Hector Berlioz and his immersion in French and other European literature are profound motivators in his work. His pupils, Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Ravel, considered him a musical genius. His opera Ascanio with a libretto by Gallet, arguably his best work, is a treatment of the same theme as that of his friend’s Berlioz Benvenutto Cellini; it draws on the autobiography of the great Florentine (mannerist) sculptor and goldsmith. The music of Saint-Saëns was admired by fellow composers Berlioz, Gounod, Rossini and Verdi all of whom were part of a panel awarding him First Prize in Composition in Paris, 1867.
As this December we mark 100 years from his death, his musical personality deserves to be viewed in this literary light; and his work to become part of our musical lives more deeply.