The Redemption of Saint-Saëns, 100 Years On

Home Society & Culture The Redemption of Saint-Saëns, 100 Years On

“I am merely a genius, not a god,” mystery writer Rex Stout’s fictional detective Nero Wolfe said. “A genius may discover the hidden secrets and display them; only a god can create new ones.”

Such a genius was French composer Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, who was born in Paris in 1835 and died at age 86 in Algiers on Dec. 16, 1921. Musical remembrances marking the centennial of his death in 2021 were muted—even in his native France—due to the pandemic. Saint-Saëns himself would have been grieved but unsurprised, for his works and genius have experienced the highs and lows of popularity not only during his lifetime but after his death as well.

Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy, a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on steroids who composed music with full competence before age four.

No composer lived to gain more privileged treatment from officialdom than Saint-Saëns. His admirers extended beyond France and even included royalty such as Britain’s Queen Alexandra, Gustaf V of Sweden, and Luís I of Portugal. Over decades, all glittering French musical prizes were his. He beheld the opening of a museum in his honor in Dieppe, France; he even witnessed the unveiling of his own statue in the same city. This latter tribute inducted him into “a select band which includes Stalin and Voltaire,” his 1965 biographer, James Harding, wrote.

Yet no composer subsequently paid for these privileges at a more usurious rate of reputational interest. Antagonists included Nobel-winning novelist Romain Rolland—who seethingly complained in a 1907 diary entry that “Saint-Saëns’ music hasn’t the slightest interest … one can talk for hours, among musicians, of French music without even pronouncing the name of Saint-Saëns”—and British musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey, who chided Saint-Saëns for “thin, mundane lucidity” and “slick classicism.”

Saint-Saëns’ long-standing friend and foe was fellow French composer Jules Massenet. Familiar to every volume on Saint-Saëns is the bumptiousness with which he greeted Massenet’s elevation to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, a French learned society. “My dear colleague,” Massenet gushed, writing to Saint-Saëns about the occasion, “the Institut has made a terrible mistake.” Saint-Saëns freezingly retorted: “I entirely agree with you.”

Saint-Saëns made amends aplenty several years after Massenet died in 1912, writing a tribute comparing Massenet to the early-19th-century French operatic composer Daniel Auber, saying “they both had facility, huge productivity, wit, grace, and success.” But the tribute also furnishes a self-portrait of Saint-Saëns as unmistakable as it is indirect, for no musical master had suffered more than Saint-Saëns from charges of mere surface appeal and of insufficient depth:

Today, of course, the leaders of fashion only respect revolutionaries. It is indeed a fine thing to despise the mob, to swim upstream and compel this mob by force of genius and energy to follow you, resist as they may.

But one can be a great artist without that.…

Another criticism was leveled at Massenet: he is superficial, we’re told; he is not profound. A profundity, as we know, is all the rage.

It’s true: he is not profound, and that doesn’t matter in the slightest.

Just as the Father’s house has many mansions, so there are several in the house of Apollo. Art is immense. It has the right to descend to the depths and to find its way into the secret corners of clouded and despairing souls. But this right is not a duty.

Yet Saint-Saëns’ nonmusical writing extended beyond mere praises or critiques of his friends. Perhaps the single most relevant passage from his many essays is one where he openly, and understandably, exulted in his own flawless craftsmanship. With neither narcissism nor sloth did Saint-Saëns exhibit a scintilla of patience. He challenged on their own ground those pampered dilettantes who scorn to study fundamental harmonic and contrapuntal rules. “The trade,” he cautioned, “is not without its uses.”

There are some who disdain it, and acknowledge nothing but inspiration. Inspiration is the priceless and indispensable material, the rough diamond, the virgin metal; ‘the trade’ is the art of the lapidary and the jeweler: it is equivalent to saying that it is Art itself. Those who despise ‘the trade’ will never be more than amateurs.

In Saint-Saëns’ epoch, such dilettantes operated from simple low-tech egomania. During the 21st century, the same type has  acquired the malign trick of calling themselves “creative” via no more onerous artistic exertion than is involved in riffling through umpteen prerecorded computer samples.

To this day, scholastic comment on Saint-Saëns cannot be called bountiful in any language; indeed, for 40-odd years after his death, such comment hardly existed. Improbable though the fact now seems, as recently as the 1980s Saint-Saëns’ now-canonical Symphony No. 3 in C minor, popularly known as the Organ Symphony, seldom reached public performance and remained unexpectedly elusive to record-collectors. Not until 1981, when the BBC arranged its first direct radio transmission from the Sydney Opera House in Australia, did an antipodean audience hear the Organ Symphony live for the first time in almost a generation.

Australia played a further role in the revival of Saint-Saëns’ music through its native son, composer Nigel Westlake, who ingeniously wove passages from the Organ Symphony into his 1995 soundtrack for the movie Babe. Without this movie, mainstream indifference to the piece would doubtless have continued. However petulant the sarcasm with which Saint-Saëns would have greeted a porcine-led recovery of his fortunes, Babe did for Saint-Saëns what the 1996 movie Shine—or, in an earlier period, Brief Encounter (1945)—did for Rachmaninoff, and what the otherwise forgettable Swedish weepie Elvira Madigan (1967) once did for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467.

Even amid the nadir of Saint-Saëns’ repute, though, a handful of works enjoyed wide acceptance. Millions who never darkened an operatic theater’s doors could, and did, sing the best-known melody from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila: the aria “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix,” customarily rendered in English as “Softly Awakes My Heart.” His gaudiest orchestral showpiece, Danse Macabre, seldom if ever lost its power to leave listeners feeling the chill breath of a memento mori. The second of Saint-Saëns’ five piano concertos routinely adorned pianist Arthur Rubinstein’s concert programs.

And whilst Saint-Saëns suppressed most of The Carnival of the Animals during his lifetime—fearing, with some justice, that the divertissement as a whole would overshadow his more serious creations—he made an exception for one Carnival movement, “The Swan.” Although other hands eventually arranged it for almost every imaginable instrument or combination of instruments, it is still probably the finest cello piece composed since the time of Johann Sebastian Bach. In its unaffected pathos it can still draw forth many a manly and womanly tear.

But if the last half-century—particularly the period since the compact disc first became the Western world’s default sound-carrier—has taught us music-lovers anything, it should have taught us the value of Saint-Saëns’ entire output. His Violin Concerto No. 3, which playwright George Bernard Shaw once dismissed as “trivially pretty scraps of serenade music sandwiched between pages from the great masters,” has since been recognized as comparable to Mendelssohn’s, Brahms’, and Tchaikovsky’s masterpieces in the genre. All modern violinists who can manage Saint-Saëns’ severe technical demands happily include the concerto in their repertoires.

Nor is this the most dramatic outcome of recent Saint-Saëns resuscitations. Operatic scores once doomed to what seemed like perpetual obscurity, such as Ascanio, Hélène, La Princesse Jaune, now evince a disconcerting willingness to appear on complete recordings and, when suitably excerpted, in student recitals. Saint-Saëns’ solo organ music, which long matched his operatic production in seeming imperviousness to revival, has of late been issued several times on CD, most notably with British organist Andrew-John Smith on the Hyperion label.

No choirmaster seeking dignified but eminently approachable material for amateurs, will ever underestimate the motet “Tollite hostias,” from Saint-Saëns’ Christmas Oratorio. The composer’s early symphonies, his other four piano concertos, both cello concertos, both violin sonatas, and a fair sampling of his chamber music (including the Septet, which in its boisterous charm would have made 15th century Dominican Friar Savonarola himself smile) can now be located by anyone with a streaming-service account.

By now, those hitherto ubiquitous aesthetic battles raging in Saint-Saëns’ own time, and long afterward—pro and contra Wagner, Brahms, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss—have grown as unable to inspire partisan allegiances as have the Yorkists versus the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses. All ancestral pamphleteering passion thereby spent, we must confine ourselves to exploring the relevant artists’ purely musical significance.

Meanwhile, the music of the old man Saint-Saëns has outlasted all those bright young things who once sneered at him. Come back, Camille, all is forgiven!

French composer Camille Saint-Saëns seated at the piano in June 1916 (Wikimedia Commons)

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