Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Camille Saint-Saëns was a French composer, and was active as a pianist, organist, and writer. A formidable figure in 19th century French music, he composed works in every genre, including operas, ballet music, sacred and secular choral works, songs and solo piano pieces, chamber music, symphonies and concertos…even a film score. His music is often described as “neoclassical”, exhibiting qualities such as clarity, balance, order, and precision (considered hallmarks of the French art music tradition), combined with his distinctive use of harmonic colour and mastery of counterpoint. Among his works best-known to audiences today are the “Organ” Symphony, Third Violin Concerto, Fourth Piano Concerto, the suite Le carnaval des animaux, and the opera Samson et Dalila.
Born in Paris on October 9, 1835, Saint-Saëns was a musical child prodigy, making his public début at the Salle Pleyel as the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1848, studying piano and later, composition and orchestration. In 1853, he became the organist at the Church of Saint-Merri, eventually moving on to La Madeleine in 1857, where he remained for 20 years. From the 1860s until the end of his life, he established an international reputation as a highly regarded composer and virtuoso pianist, performing on concert tours in England, southern Europe, Scandinavia, South America, East Asia, and the United States.
Saint-Saëns’s talents attracted the admiration and friendship of many notable musicians and composers, including Pauline Viardot, Gioachino Rossini, Hector Berlioz, and Franz Liszt. Beyond his own works, the composer actively promoted—through performance and his writings—the music of several of his contemporaries, including Robert Schumann and Liszt. He was also instrumental in the revival of French interest in the music of J.S. Bach and Mozart. In 1871, Saint-Saëns founded, with his colleague Romain Bussine, the Société Nationale de Musique, to support and perform the music of living French composers.
A life-long traveller, Saint-Saëns had a special fondness for Algiers and spent much time there and in Egypt in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, he continued to compose, conduct, and perform, receiving many honours for his contributions. In August 1921, he gave his final public performances as a pianist and as a conductor. A few months later, on December 16, he died in Algiers.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley