French composer Camille Saint-Saens had a long and successful career as a pianist, organist and composer. Over the course of his life he saw music change dramatically as the world moved from one century to another. Yet, his music stood grounded and his style remained consistent. Claude Debussy called Camille Saint-Saens, “The musician of tradition”.
Saint-Saens was an exceptional child prodigy. His father died when he was only months old, so he was taken in by his aunt who started to teach him piano when he was only two. By the age of three Camille was composing original pieces. He was seven when he started to study the organ and began playing for the public. When he was 10, he headlined for a major concert playing concerti by Mozart and Beethoven.
He applied his brilliant mind to all of his studies and pursuits; excelling at languages, the sciences and mathematics and becoming a published author of books, poetry and articles. While attending the Paris Conservatory, he won multiple awards and began to receive international attention, especially from composers like Rossini, Liszt and Berlioz. Berlioz declared that the young Saint-Saens, “knows everything but lacks inexperience.” Liszt called him the greatest organist in the world.
As a performer, Camille Saint-Saens championed the music of Wagner and Robert Schumann. He introduced France to the symphonic poems of Liszt and brought the music of J.S. Bach and Handel to the forefront of French music.
As a composer, Saint-Saens was extremely prolific. He wrote in every style and genre of the 19th century and was even the first prominent composer to write a film score in 1908. Though his popularity in France waned over the years, for the rest of world he was regarded as the prominent French composer of his time.
Saint-Saens had a troubled family life. His short-lived marriage saw the death of two children, one lost through a freak accident – a fall from a balcony. However, he found a surrogate family with his student Gabriel Faure, investing his time in Faure’s family as a beloved uncle.
Camille Saint-Saens was so concerned with his legacy that he forbade the publication or performance of his work The Carnival of the Animals. He considered it a childish piece and not worthy of his serious reputation. He would probably be surprised to discover that The Carnival of the Animals has become his most popular work.
Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.