1835 — 1921
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Saint-Saëns was one of the premier French composers of his time and was one of the main leaders of the rebirth of French music in the 1870s.
Saint-Saëns showed musical brilliance from childhood – he gave his debut concert in 1845 aged ten, at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, performing concertos by Beethoven and Mozart from memory. He was encouraged to study composition and three years later, he began at the Paris Conservatoire, where he focused on composition, organ, singing, conducting and orchestration. Still in his youth, he made friends with Gounod, Rossini andBerlioz. Saint-Saëns was also greatly admired byLiszt, who hailed him not just as a great pianist and composer , but as the greatest organist the world had ever seen.
In 1853 he was appointed organist of the Cathedral of Saint Merry, which was to prove an important career move. Saint-Saëns’s Mass op.4 was dedicated to the Abbé Gabriel, who was so impressed that, in gratitude, he invited Saint-Saëns to accompany him on a trip to Italy, the beginning of a career full of travel and inspiration from far and wide.
Saint-Saëns was the first to play Liszt’s symphonic poems in France. Saint-Saëns himself ventured into the genre of symphonic poem, withLe rouet d'Omphale (1871), Phaéton (1873), Danse macabre (1874) and La jeunesse d'Hercule (1877). The symphonic poem genre was seen as a great novelty in Paris at the time, and he aided its popularity and helped in leading to other various developments in French music.
He helped stir up interest in composers of the past. He helped resurrect interest inBach and even persuaded the sceptical Berlioz to do likewise. Handel’s music was seldom played in France at the time and Saint-Saëns brought about a resurgence of followers of his music and was very much influenced by Handel’s musical language in his own oratoriosLe déluge (1875) and The Promised Land (1913).
The 1860s was a fruitful decade for Saint-Saëns and he won prizes for his compositions: hisSpartacus overture won another competition organized by the Société Sainte-Cécile and his cantata Les noces de Prométhée won a competition at the Grande Fête Internationale du Travail et de l'Industrie, whose jury included Rossini, Auber, Berlioz, Verdi and Gounod. His First Piano Concerto found great success in France and abroad and he enjoyed a prominent reputation as a composer and virtuoso pianist. Gounod dubbed him ‘the French Beethoven’. This decade also included his only teaching experience - at the Ecole Niedermeyer, a school that was set up to enrich the level of music in French churches. His pupils included Fauré and Messager. He is remembered as a thoroughly inspiring teacher who gave his pupils an immense intellectual stimulus in the field of modern music and the arts in general. He also founded the Societé National de Musique with his colleague Romain Bussine in 1871, with the aim of encouraging and promoting performances of music by living French composers.
Saint-Saëns composed his Carnival of the Animals, or Le carnaval des animaux, in the late 1870s. The work is a witty, comical set of pieces that parody Mendelssohn, Rossini, Offenbach as well as himself – hisDanse Macabre appears in different guises throughout. Some widely-adored favourites from the work include The Swan, The Elephant, The Aquarium and Fossils.
Although Saint-Saëns composed in every genre that existed in 19th century Western music, it was the more traditional styles that were his most successful – sonatas, symphonies and concertos. His keen historical and literary insight gave him the fascination and initiative to revisit old styles. He revived the 17 th century French dance forms of the bourée, the minuet and the gavotte. His art was one of adaptation and revival rather than the pursuing of an experimental path.