Born Charles Camille Saint-Sans, October 9, 1835, in Paris, France, (died December 16, 1921 in Algiers, Algeria); son of Jacques Joseph Victor (a government clerk) and Clemence Franchise Collin Saint-Sans; married Marie Laure Emile Truffot, 1875 (separated, 1881); two children died in infancy. Education: Studied at the Paris Conservatory, 1848-52.

A piano prodigy in his youth but an estimable personage in French music as an adult, Camille Saint-Sans is one of the few great musical names associated with a country better known for its contribution to the visual arts. Saint-Sans was renowned for his breathtaking skill as a pianist-he was compared to Mozart as a child and Beethoven later-but his compositions for the symphony, ballet, and concerto ensemble are a legacy of his formidable intelligence and talent. They are considered quintessentially French pieces: clear, ordered, and intellectually profound.

Saint-Sans was born in Paris in 1835 at home at 3 rue de Jardinet in the Latin Quarter. His father was a clerk at the Ministry of the Interior, but died of consumption before Camille was a year old. Their unusual family name came from their hometown, which had been known once in Latin as Sanctus Sidonius. The death of his father was not the only setback Saint-Sans suffered at an early age-he was a sickly child, and tuberculosis threatened him as well. He lived with his mother and her aunt, Charlotte Masson, who began teaching him piano at the age of two. A precocious child, he wrote his first work for the instrument at the age of three.

Debuted at Age 10

Madame Clemence Saint-Sans, a devoted mother and great influence upon her son well into his adulthood, soon recognized the necessity for serious lessons, and after just a few years of formal training Camille debuted in his first formal performance. The event took place in 1846 at Paris's Salle Pleyel. At the close of the performance, the ten-year-old offered to play any of Mozart's piano concertos by memory. In addition to such startling musical skill and memory, Saint-Sans proved to be gifted academically. As a teen he excelled in Latin and mathematics at school and loved the intellectual challenges of science and philosophy, as well. He was thirteen when he entered the prestigious Paris Conservatory for further musical training, where he studied the organ and began classes in composition. His Ode a Sainte-Cecile, a homage to the patron saint of music, won him his first competition award in 1852 from a Paris musical society.

Saint-Sans wrote his first symphony at the age of 18, and it was presented anonymously in a Paris performance two years later. Such accomplishments brought an array of prominent admirers to Saint-Sans' recitals, and both Gioacchino Rossini and Louis-Hector Berlioz were counted among his early supporters. In 1853, after finishing his studies at the Conservatory, Saint-Sans was hired as a church organist at St. Severin in Paris, but in 1857, at the age of just twenty-two, he became organist at the Church of the Madeleine. This was Paris's most fabled church of the modern era, and it was an illustrious appointment for Saint-Sans that added much to his fame. It was at the Eglise Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, as it was known then, that Saint-Sans met the great Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt, who happened by the church one day and heard Saint-Sans improvising. Liszt, who influenced a generation of classical pianists, called the young Frenchman the greatest organist in the world.

Impressed Wagner

Early on in his career Saint-Sans was considered part of a new and modern vanguard of musicians and composers, though later his views would grow considerably orthodox. As a young man, he was a disciple of Richard Wagner, whose early works were met with critical derision. Saint-Sans defended both Tannhaueser and Lohengrin as important masterpieces, and a century later they remain two of Wagner's most famous and revered operas. In return, Wagner recognized Saint-Sans as a gifted keyboardist prodigy. Once Saint-Sans was visiting Wagner with a mutual friend, and the latter two were speaking German, a language in which Saint-Sans was not conversationally fluent. Bored, he picked up a manuscript of Wagner's-the unfinished score for Siegfried-and began playing it prima vista, "on first sight." Wagner was astounded.

In Paris, Saint-Sans was a celebrity, known as a talented composer and gifted performer. He also began to win acclaim from abroad, and was invited to play before for Queen Victoria. From 1861 to 1865 he taught at the Ecole Niedermeyer, and influenced several rising young church organists and composers, including Gabriel Faure. He would effect even more decisive influence upon French music as a founder-with Romain Bussine-of the Societe Nationale de Musique in 1871. At the time, German music and German composers dominated much of the classical world, and the Societe's motto, Ars Gallica, reflected its mission to encourage young French composers and promote their works to the public. The Societe premiered early works of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, among many others.

Saint-Sans was of course a prolific composer himself. His 1863 Introduction and Rondo capriccioso in A Minor (Op.28) would become a standard performance piece for violinists. Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor was written in just 17 days in 1868, but is nevertheless considered by scholars as exemplary of his talents in piano composition. Like Liszt, Saint-Sans also began writing symphonic poems. Le Rouet d'Omphale was the first of these, published in 1872, and Danse macabre, dating from 1874 is perhaps the most well known of his symphonic poems. The eerie music is based on poem by Henri Cazalis that finds the specter of death playing a violin for skeletal figures on a dark winter night.

A Disastrous Marriage

Saint-Sans lived with his mother well into his twenties, and was famous in Paris for his short stature, odd walk, and lisp, all of which were caricatured in the press. In 1875, nearing forty, he entered into a disastrous marriage with Marie Laure Emile Truffot-a young woman nearly half his age-with whom he had two sons. Tragically both sons died within six weeks of each other-one from an illness and the other after falling out of a window. For the latter death Saint-Sans blamed his wife, and when they went on vacation together in 1881 he simply disappeared one day. A separation order was enacted, but they never divorced.

During the 1870s Saint-Sans gained increasing recognition as a composer. His opera Samson et Delilah is the only one of his dozen operas to remain in the performing repertoire a century later. Rather unusual when it debuted in Weimar in 1877 for its biblical themes, it would not be performed in France for another 15 years. Two works that Saint-Sans wrote in 1886 would define his style. The first, commissioned by the London Royal Philharmonic Society, was his Symphony No. 3 with Organ in C Minor (Op. 78). Written for a large orchestra-It requires three flutes, three trumpets, three kettledrums, as well as organ and piano-Is considered an outstanding example of Saint-Sans' style and remains a popular favorite with classical audiences. Part of its finale was even used in the score of the 1995 film Babe.

Another work from 1886, Le carnaval des animaux, was written while on holiday, and Saint-Sans did not wish that any part of this lighthearted work be associated with his name, for he considered it frivolous. The only part he allowed was a cello piece called "The Swan." Ironically, it would become one of the most beloved works in his repertoire when it debuted in its entirety a year following his death.

Became Increasingly Eccentric

When Madame Clemence Saint-Sans died in 1888, her son plummeted into a deep depression, and even considered suicide. He began to write less and travel more, taking with him his beloved dogs and a dedicated servant. His visited many exotic locales, and was especially fascinated by life and customs in North Africa and Egypt. His work Africa, dating from 1891, reflects this passion, while Fifth Piano Concerto (1896) is sometimes referred to as the "Egyptian." During a visit to South America, Saint-Sans was commissioned to write a national anthem for Uruguay. He also traveled to Russia, and became friends with Peter Tchaikovsky. On a visit to America in 1915, Saint-Sans was hailed as greatest living French composer. The British sovereign Edward VII made him a commander of the Victorian Order in appreciation of the 1901 coronation march that Saint-Sans penned.

Saint-Sans was also the first established composer to score a film, L'assassinat du Duc de Guise, dating from 1908. Despite his visionary talents and legendary energies, he grew increasingly eccentric and cranky in his old age, and was sometimes derided in the press for his strong opinions. He conducted a campaign against the work of Debussy at one point, and called for a suppression of all German music during World War II. But he also wrote prolifically on a variety of non-musical topics, and published literary criticism and essays on art antiquities. He died in Algeria in 1921.

by Carol Brennan

Camille Saint-Sans's Career

Made formal debut at Salle Pleyel, Paris, 1846; wrote first symphony at the age of 18 and performed in public two years later; served as church organist, 1853-57; organist at the Madeleine, 1857-76; Ecole Niedermeyer, teacher, 1861-65; co-founder of Societe Nationale de Musique, 1871; wrote first opera, La princesse jaune, 1872.

Camille Saint-Sans's Awards

Legion d'honneur, France, 1868; received honorary doctorate from Cambridge University, 1893; made commander of the Victorian Order of the British Empire, 1901.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 13 years ago

World war I and not world war II. ( the compser died before World war II)