‘I compose like an apple tree produces apples,’ Camille Saint-Saëns said. Music came naturally to him. He was always interested in the world, and wrote music that showed an openness and joy in life.
He was an incredibly talented boy. When he gave his first public concert at the age of 10 in Paris, the programme included piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven – it was amazing that a boy of 10 could play these. He excelled in many subjects at school, and at the Paris Conservatoire he won top prize for his organ playing.
He had no brothers or sisters, and his father had died when he was only a baby. So he lived with his mother in Paris for many years. He did marry, but he and his wife weren’t happy together so it didn’t last. When his mother eventually died in 1888, he found it hard to carry on at first – they had been very close. He was great friends with Fauré, and became like an uncle to Fauré’s two sons.
Saint-Saëns initially supported the ‘modern’ composers of his day – Wagner, Liszt, Schumann – but he himself preferred to write music that didn’t trouble his listeners. We know him best for The Carnival of the Animals – a delightful collection of pieces, popular especially for children. He wrote many other things besides this, including 12 operas and his scarily descriptive Danse macabre. His Symphony No. 3 (‘Organ’), both exciting and soothing, shows brilliantly his inventiveness.
Although he adored his native France and wanted to promote French music, Saint-Saëns loved travelling. He went to over 25 countries, including Algeria and Egypt, and the sounds he heard in these places brought variety to his writing. The traditional music of countries further east is not based on the scales of Western classical music, and Saint-Saëns would sometimes pick out notes that made his music sound more ‘foreign’. Most people hadn’t travelled outside their own country, so this exotic twist in his music was all the more interesting!
Saint-Saëns’ music was popular with audiences, and composers such as Fauré and Ravel rated it too. Some have felt it lacks the originality of a true genius, but in fact Saint-Saëns had the rare gift of writing music that is cheerful and positive without being bland.
Pick a piece by Saint-Saëns…
The Carnival of the Animals: XIII. The Swan
Listen to the swan (the cello) on the rippling water (the piano)… This is part of The Carnival of the Animals, and something cellists love to play.
Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd
Taken from Naxos 8.550335
Danse macabre, Op. 40
It is Halloween at midnight, and the Devil plays his fiddle to call forth the dead from their graves. Mind the skeletons! There’s one at 1.45 playing the xylophone…
Performers: Malmö Symphony Orchestra; Marc Soustrot
Taken from Naxos 8.573140
Samson and Delilah: Bacchanale
Near the end of Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson and Delilah the Philistines dance this wild bacchanale, before Samson breaks free of them. The story is biblical, and Saint-Saëns used particular notes and harmonies that suggest a place and time far from his native 19th-century France.
Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Stephen Gunzenhauser
Taken from Naxos 8.556675
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● Saint Saëns was very clever; in particular he was good at what?
● Saint-Saëns wrote how many piano concertos?
● Saint-Saëns’ most famous opera is called what?
● Saint-Saëns wrote a devilish piece of music. What was it?
● Which animal doesn’t feature in The Carnival of the Animals?
- Saint-Saëns was clever. He did well in many subjects at school, including mathematics.
- Saint-Saëns’ father died when he was a baby, and he was raised by his mother; it was her aunt who gave him his first piano lessons.
- Saint-Saëns was interested in many things apart from music, and knew a lot about butterflies!
- Saint-Saëns wrote The Carnival of the Animals as a kind of joke. He banned complete performances of it when he was alive because he thought people would judge him badly if they heard it.
- Saint-Saëns and Debussy did not like each other’s music: Debussy thought Saint-Saëns’ music was sentimental, and Saint-Saëns found Debussy’s too modern and bizarre.
Play More Music!
Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, ‘Organ’
It isn’t often that you find a pipe organ in a symphony: Saint-Saëns went for a big orchestra here. There is a piano, too. After the slow introduction, the first movement has a great urgency about it, with a big crescendo around 4.00. Can you hear the blasting brass instruments at 4.20? We hear the organ for the first time at beginning of track 2: it is playing the soft, sustained (held) notes underneath the string melody. The second movement (track 3) begins with a real energy. We first hear the piano at c. 1.40 – can you hear a cascade of notes leading up to the top of the keyboard? It happens again c. 1.50. If you’re wondering at this point whether the organ has been important enough, play the start of track 4. There it is: magnificent! And as an immediate contrast, at 0.33, there is a gentle melody from the strings with tinkling, high piano notes played by two pianists at one keyboard (music used in the film Babe). The whole movement builds in excitement: you can almost imagine Saint-Saëns at his desk with his manuscript paper, imagining the sounds and rhythms in his head as he wrote them, and having the most wonderful time!
Performers: Vincent Warnier, organ; Lyon National Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin
Taken from Naxos 8.573331
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22
This virtuoso work, written in 1868, is the most celebrated of Saint-Saëns’ five piano concertos. The opening pays homage to the great J.S. Bach, who lived over 100 years earlier – the music is very like Bach’s, with individual notes picked out precisely in a particular pattern. But it’s not long (about 30 seconds!) before the music is set free, tumbling into an expressive, Romantic, more stormy style.
Performers: Romain Descharmes, piano; Malmö Symphony Orchestra; Marc Soustrot
Taken from Naxos 8.573476
Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33
The solo cello bursts in right from the beginning. The phrase you hear it play – one long note then rapid, falling notes in groups of three – is heard many times, by the cello and also by other instruments in the orchestra. The second movement is different: violins with mutes (each violin has a little block on the strings which stops them resonating so much, so the sound is softer) play a delicate, fairy-like introduction for the cello, which enters about a minute later and then seems to dance with them. Woodwind instruments (flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon) come in after a while, and when they take on the bouncy little tune, beside them the cello trills (alternates two nextdoor notes really fast; listen at 2.55). The final movement begins dramatically and gets more dramatic. There are some tricky bits for the cellist here… The whole concerto is fresh and alive.
Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Bournemouth Sinfonietta; Jean-François Monnard
Taken from Naxos 8.553039
Suite algérienne (‘Algerian Suite’), Op. 60
Saint-Saëns, a keen traveller, loved Algeria in North Africa; at this time, the country was a French colony. His experience of Algeria fed the music he wrote for this suite, which is like an exotic musical postcard: sometimes it’s as if you can see and smell the place as you listen. The first movement describes a view of Algiers from the sea. In the final military march, he makes the orchestra sound grand and victorious.
Performers: Basque National Orchestra; Jun Märkl
Taken from Naxos 8.573732
Havanaise, Op. 83
Written in 1887, this graceful piece for solo violin with orchestra is based on the rhythm of the habanera, a popular Spanish and Spanish-American dance style. Suggesting the graceful, attractive movements of young Havana girl, the violin swirls around in an entrancing way. The speed and mood change through the piece, but the violin is always the centre of attention!
Performers: Howard Zhang, violin; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Takuo Yuasa
Taken from Naxos 8.555093
The Carnival of the Animals
A classic for children, this is surely Saint-Saëns’ most famous work. It was originally written for just eleven players and so it counts as a chamber work, but today it is often played by a larger orchestra. There are pianists and ‘people with long ears’ here too, so it’s a strange carnival! As you imagine the animals in each piece, try to think about how Saint-Saëns uses music to describe them. For example, the Lion (beginning at 0.35 of track 1) has solid, grand, confident chords (notes played together): the lion is proud, beautiful, superior. What about the rest?
Performers: Marián Lapšanský, piano; Peter Toperczer, piano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lénard
Taken from Naxos 8.550335
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 92
This Piano Trio (for piano, violin and cello) seems to flow like water, the three instruments beautifully connected with each other. Music came easily to Saint-Saëns. He was a positive, enthusiastic man, and this work is a good example of why audiences in France were proud of their composer and enjoyed the music he wrote. He didn’t want to shock people with things they weren’t expecting – instead, he delighted them by giving their ears something to enjoy exploring.
Performers: Christopher Millard, bassoon; Stéphane Lemelin, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.550935
Bassoon Sonata in G major, Op. 168
In his last year, Saint-Saëns decided to write one sonata for each member of the woodwind family. He managed sonatas for oboe, clarinet and, lastly, this one for bassoon, before his death brought the series to an incomplete end. We think of the bassoon as a low instrument – and it often is – but listen to how it begins this piece: after the piano’s lovely ‘broken chord’ introduction, it sings a gentle melody that is surprisingly high. The bassoon is a glorious instrument. It is sometimes hard to hear it in the orchestra, so people don’t always realise how agile and pleasing it is. But here it is, having a lovely time!
Performers: Christopher Millard, bassoon; Stéphane Lemelin, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.570964
Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75
Saint-Saëns once said to a friend, ‘I like nothing better than chamber music’. He wrote many chamber works, and promoted chamber music in Paris in the first half of the 19th century. This Violin Sonata No. 1 is demanding – both the violinist and the pianist have some challenging things to play. But it is satisfying music, and nothing gives musicians greater pleasure than tackling challenges that are worthwhile.
Performers: Fanny Clamagirand, violin; Vanya Cohen, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.572750
String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 112
Saint-Saëns is sometimes described as a ‘lightweight’ composer. It suggests that his music, often joyful and pleasing to hear, is somehow easy and deserves less praise. But Saint-Saëns did not lack ability – he could write serious-sounding music too. Here is an example of a work that is more considered and weighty. Perhaps we could say that listening to a lot of Saint-Saëns’ music feels like being on holiday, whereas listening to this string quartet (for two violins, viola and cello) is more like being at school or at work. There is a frown of concentration in it, and it contrasts brilliantly with his sunnier, easier music!
Performers: Fine Arts Quartet
Taken from Naxos 8.572454