Who was Saint-Saëns?

In some respects, it’s easier to describe what Saint-Saëns was not than what he was.

He was neither a revolutionary, nor a mould-breaker. He was neither a Beethoven, nor a Wagner, nor any of the other figures against whom other composers seem inevitably to be measured. He wrote with a distinctive voice in an immediately recognisable style – and with an ease and technical fluency that have rarely been matched.

But does his very facility, his conservative musical language, and the fact that his music does not, by and large, plumb the depths of human experience make him a second-division composer?

Saint-Saëns has been sniffed at by critics and musicologists probably more than any other major composer.

He is written off as either too uncritical of his own music or a reactionary figure of little originality; that he is superficial or he lacks emotion (perhaps they haven’t heard the sensual arias of Samson et Delilah). ‘Saint-Saëns is the only great composer who wasn’t a genius.’ That’s one famous swipe. ‘Bad music well written.’ That’s another.

There’s still a whiff of condescension attached to Saint-Saëns today, and little of his vast and varied output appears regularly in concert programmes.

The Requiem Mass, the Christmas Oratorio, all but one of his operas and piano concertos, the ballet Javotte, the haunting Cyprès et Lauriers – all are unknown or seldom heard. The great Piano Quartet, Op. 41, the Septet and the Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, all masterpieces, remain comparatively unfamiliar. If the Saint-Saëns pops are over-familiar – Danse macabre, the Organ Symphony (No. 3), Carnival of the Animals, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and the Second Piano Concerto – that should not detract from the endless inventive, unexpected and even daring ideas they contain.

To an extraordinary degree, Saint-Saëns mastered every field of endeavour to which he turned his eclectic mind.

In addition to being a virtuoso pianist and organist, he was also a conductor, caricaturist, playwright, poet, philosopher and essayist on botany and ancient music. He wrote with authority on science, mathematics, astronomy and archaeology. He was a critic and a scholarly editor of music and composed nearly 400 works, touching every field of music, including the first significant score by a major composer for the fledgling art of the cinema (L’assassinat du duc de Guise, 1908).

As a child, Saint-Saëns seems to have absorbed his interests from almost exclusively female company. His father died when he was a baby, leaving him to be brought up by his mother, Clémence, and her aunt, Charlotte Masson.

He began playing the piano at two and quickly showed himself to be one of the most precocious of all musical prodigies. After studying at the Paris Conservatoire, he was appointed to France’s most prestigious organ post, that of the Madeleine in Paris. He remained there for nearly two decades, developing his legendary gift for improvisation. On hearing Saint-Saëns perform there, Liszt declared the Frenchman the greatest organist in the world. Hans von Bülow rated Saint-Saëns the world’s finest sight-reader and ‘the greatest musical mind of our times’. At the early age of 32, Saint-Saëns was awarded the Légion d’honneur. By the end of the 1860s, he was numbered among the supreme living composers.

By contrast, Saint-Saëns’s private life was a disaster, utterly at odds with the orderly construction and harmonious colours of his music. He remained a bachelor until he was almost 40 when he married (after a whirlwind romance and against his mother’s wishes) Marie-Laure Truffot, the 19-year-old sister of one of his favourite pupils, Jean. There was no honeymoon and after the ceremony they returned to the house in the Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré which the composer shared with his mother. Two sons were born in quick succession, despite Saint-Saëns’s frequent absences. In May 1878, the elder boy, André, climbed out on to a fourth-floor window ledge, lost his balance and fell to his death. Barely six weeks later, his little brother, Jean-François, died suddenly from pneumonia. Saint-Saëns, influenced by his mother, blamed his wife for their deaths.

While on holiday in the summer of 1881, he walked out of their hotel without warning; a legal separation followed and he never saw or contacted his wife again. When his mother died at the age of 79 in 1888, he considered suicide. Unable to face living in the family apartment, he sent his possessions to Dieppe and led a nomadic life until his death. He travelled widely, not only to Russia and North America, but also to South America (he wrote a hymn for Uruguay’s national holiday), Scandinavia, East Asia, the Canary Islands and, most frequently of all, Algeria. Though his homosexual tendencies were an open secret (Reynaldo Hahn was among his closest friends), he often travelled under a false name.

After the death of his mother, Saint-Saëns’s creative output declined in productivity and scale. He became increasingly bitter and misanthropic, making enemies as a result. His outspoken dislike of Brahms, Richard Strauss, Franck and d’Indy, and his implacable opposition to the progressive music of Debussy and others, won him no friends. This latter period of Saint-Saëns’s life did much damage to his reputation, overshadowing all the good and progressive work of many years. No matter he had helped to found the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871 to give new French music a hearing, introducing works by Franck, d’Indy, Dukas, Ravel and others. In the final two decades of his life, the musical establishment turned their backs on the Grand Old Man and his old-fashioned music.

Saint-Saëns died in Algiers on 16 December 1921, aged 86, in the arms of his manservant. He was given a state funeral at the Madeleine. A few years later, Reynaldo Hahn noted sadly: ‘Today it takes courage to admire Saint-Saëns.’ Plus ça change.

We named Saint-Saëns one of the best French composers ever

Jeremy Nicholas