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Repertory Archive

Camille Saint-Saëns



Though now considered a rather conservative composer and one of the last proponents of nineteenth-century French musical Romanticism, Camille Saint-Saëns was widely regarded as a virtuoso by his peers and contemporaries, and he was one of the most highly honored French artistic figures of his day.

Charles Camille Saint-Saëns was born on October 9, 1835 in Paris. His father, an official of the Ministry of Interior, died of tuberculosis when the boy was three months old. He was subsequently raised by his mother, with whom he lived until her death in 1888, and his great-aunt, Charlotte Masson.

Saint-Saëns demonstrated musical gifts at an early age. Madame Masson began teaching him piano before he was three years old, and he was able to play difficult pieces within a year; by the age of five he was composing songs. He began his formal musical training in 1842 and made his debut as a concert pianist in 1846, before his eleventh birthday.

After graduating from the Paris Conservatory in 1853, Saint-Saëns gained recognition among his peers as an organ virtuoso and thus won the coveted position of chief organist at the Madeleine Church in Paris, a post he held from 1858 to 1877.

Simultaneously, he pursued a career as a pianist and conductor, taught at L’Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris, where his students included Gabriel Faur√© and Andre Messager, and composed a prodigious number of musical works of various genres.

Among Saint-Saëns‚Äô best-known compositions are his Second Piano Concerto in G minor (1868), the tone poems Le Rouet d’Omphale (Omphale‚Äôs Spinning Wheel) (1868) and Danse Macabre (1875), the First Cello Concerto in A Minor (1873), the opera Samson et Dalilah (1875), the Third Violin Concerto in G minor (1881), and the Third Symphony in C minor with organ (1886).

His body of works also includes chamber music, masses and other choral compositions, a dozen operas, a wide variety of orchestral music, numerous songs, and solo pieces for organ and piano.

His unique and now-familiar Le Carnaval des Animaux (The Carnival of the Animals) (1886), for two pianos and orchestra, was intended as a private entertainment for his friends, and he forbade its public performance during his lifetime. The part of the narrator, now usually included, was added by others after his death.

Thereafter the composer traveled extensively, and spent his winters in Algeria, where he died of pneumonia at the age of 86 on December 16, 1921.