Camille Saint-Saëns

1835 - 1921



French composer Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris on October 9th 1835. He was often compared to Mozart for his being a child prodigy and for his excellent craftsmanship. He was taught to play the piano from the age of three and gave his debut as a soloist at the age of ten with a programme including Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in C minor and Mozart’s Concerto in B flat, for which the young boy prepared his own cadenza. He performed the whole programme from memory – a rare feat at this time and one that particularly impressed the conductor Stamaty who recommended he study composition with Pierre Maleden. 

He enrolled at the Paris Conservatory in 1848 and began studying the organ with Benoist, being awarded the first prize in 1851. He also began studying composition and orchestration with Halévy and had lessons in accompaniment and singing. His prodigious talent won him the friendship of many within the upper echelons of Parisian culture at the time, such as Gounod, Berlioz and Liszt. He was appointed organist at St. Merry in 1853 where he remained until moving to the Madeleine in 1857. Whilst here Liszt heard him improvise and reportedly called him the best organist in the world. 

During the 1860s, Saint-Saëns had what was likely one of the happiest periods of his life, with a settled and happy home life and a formidable and prolific public reputation as a composer and as a virtuoso pianist. In spite of failing to win the Prix de Rome for the second time in 1863, he did win other awards and many of the works composed in this period saw critical acclaim and very warm receptions. This period also saw Saint-Saëns only professional educational appointment at the Ecole Niedermeyer between 1861 and 1865. In this position, his students included Fauré, Messager and Gigout, all of whom proved life long friends. Saint-Saëns students said of him that he was a strict but inspiring teacher providing much intellectual excitement and stimulation. 

Even as his popularity in France began to tail off later in his career, Saint-Saëns remained incredibly popular in the USA and England, being popularly regarded as the greatest living French composer. In the early parts of the twentieth century, he made a number of trips to the USA, performing and lecturing in a range of cities. He also toured England on multiple occasions in his life, playing before Queen Victoria and studying original Handel manuscripts. 

His final concert as a virtuoso pianist came on August 6th 1921 at the Dieppe Casino, at which he played 7 pieces to mark his 75 years of public performing. He conducted his final concert at Béziers with rehearsals for Antigone on August 21st 1921. He then returned to Algiers in Decemeber, with the intention of doing some orchestration, but died on December 16th.


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