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Camille Saint-Saëns


Born: 9 October 1835 in Paris; died: 16 December 1921 in Algiers. Camille Saint-Saëns is one of the most respected French composers from the generation preceding Claude Debussy. Back in his childhood, the Parisian boy attracted attention with his aptitude in a number of scientific disciplines – from natural sciences to linguistics. Owing to his extraordinary talent for piano, at the age of twelve he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire. Subsequently, he won an organ competition and became an organist at the Saint Mary (1853-57) and Saint Madeleine (1858-77) churches. As regards composition, he devoted to all genres. Within the framework of the best French traditions, Saint-Saëns’s musical style can be characterised by the words “elegant perfection”. Although an admirer and champion of the music of Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner, who at the time of his youth were modern composers, he was primarily influenced by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach. Saint-Saëns was a devotee and brilliant performer of Mozart’s piano pieces, while he had an affinity with Bach in terms of similar composing skills. However, it cannot be said that Saint-Saëns was merely an imitator of German musical styles. In 1871 he presided over the birth of the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris whose mission was to promote performances of new music by French composers. In 1881 he became a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and later was to be conferred with honorary doctorates at Cambridge (1893) and Oxford (1907) universities. During his lifetime, Saint-Saëns’s fame stretched far beyond the borders of France. His compositions enjoyed great popularity throughout Europe, as well as in the United States of America, where in 1915, at the age of 80, he made a triumphal tour. Many composers who were considered revolutionaries in their youth often become conservative artists in their latter years. In this respect, Saint-Saëns was no exception. He did not acknowledge, for example, Debussy, and in 1913 he denounced the celebrated Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). Even though a great deal of Saint-Saëns’s extensive oeuvre has been more or less forgotten today, some of his symphonies, chamber compositions and, above all, the opera Samson et Dalila have enjoyed increasing popularity.