Tuesday, 21 April 2015

S is for Saint-Saens

Today we're going for a French connection.  Camille Saint-Saens was born in Paris in 1835, the only child of a French politician and his wife.  His father died shortly after he was born, and his mother took him to the country for several years before returning to Paris to enroll her son in school.  Before he was five he showed the ability of perfect pitch and began training in piano, although his mother didn't wish him to become famous at a young age like other prodigies had before him.  He gave small performances in the family home but didn't have an official public debut until age 10.  Music wasn't his only area of expertise; he showed high aptitude for literature, languages, and mathematics.

At age 13 he was accepted into the Paris Conservatoire where he studied organ as well as piano and received formal instruction in composition.  Upon his graduation in 1853 he accepted a church organist post, which gave him time to concentrate on composing.  His talent was quickly spotted by other composers of the time such as Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt, who declared him to be one of the best organists in the world.  He became a music teacher in 1861, and among his students was Gabriel Faur√©.  He conceived his best-known piece, "Carnival of the Animals" with his students in mind, although he wouldn't finish it for several more years.

The breakout of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 put his musical plans on hold and he escaped to England temporarily.  Upon his return, the general thinking of the musical community was to promote more French musicians, and Saint-Saens became vice-president of the new National Music Society.  He experimented with new styles such as opera and symphonic poems.  Surprising his peers, he married briefly, but the loss of their elder son to an accident and a younger son to illness was devastating and they separated.

Saint-Saens was not a particularly religious man and found the dogma irritating; he eventually resigned his post as organist (rarely to play it thereafter) and concentrated on composing.  After the success of his opera "Samson and Dalila" in 1877 he traveled internationally and built upon his reputation as a musician.  Soon though he would face difficulties at home: by the mid 1880s the music scene was becoming increasingly German-dominated and the society that he helped found no longer was focused on French interests, so he resigned in protest.  The death of his mother in 1888 was another blow that left him unable to compose for over six months.

For the next decade he traveled extensively and regained his composer's touch; he staged several operas and concert pieces during this time.  Finally he settled in Paris once again but continued to pay visits to and perform in England, Italy, Spain, and Monaco.  He even made two successful tours to the United States.  However by the early years of the 20th century he disliked the encroachment of "modernism" into music which put him at odds with other composers of the time.  His attempt to lead a boycott of German music at the outbreak of the First World War did not help his reputation, and so he spent the war years on a number of charitable efforts, giving concerts on both sides of the Atlantic.

After the war he retired to Paris, and died suddenly of a heart attack at his winter home in Algiers in 1921.  Over the course of his life he had contributed greatly to French music and was loved by many.  He was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour, awarded a membership in the British Royal Victorian Order, and had honorary doctorates from the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.

Here is the Finale from the suite Carnival of the Animals, as animated in the film Fantasia 2000.  "We finally answer the age-old question: What would happen if you gave a yo-yo to a flock of flamingos?"
Carnival of the Animals - Finale

No comments:

Post a Comment