Saint-Saëns: Pioneer and paradox, rethinking the composer a century on

Tim Ashley
Monday, January 10, 2022

Saint-Saëns was a complex, paradoxical composer who considered himself an eclectic, developed a nationalistic streak and tried not to display private emotion in his music. Tim Ashley makes the case that his originality is too easily overlooked

Camille Saint-Saëns (photo: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

‘Fundamentally, it is neither Bach, nor Beethoven, nor Wagner that I love, but Art. I am an eclectic,’ Saint-Saëns wrote in the preface to Harmonie et mélodie, a collection of his criticism published in 1885. ‘This is perhaps a major flaw,’ he added, ‘but it is impossible for me to correct: one cannot change one’s nature.’ Rightly or wrongly, his statement came to be seen as something of a credo, and his reputation remains coloured by the idea of his being ‘an eclectic’ adhering to an overarching concept of ‘Art’ that to some extent dictated the nature of his output.

He was a complex figure, a man of paradoxes and contradictions. A classicist by temperament, he distrusted the prevailing self-absorption of the Romantic era in which he lived, yet let himself be influenced by it stylistically. A pioneer with regard to symphonic and chamber music, he eventually became an establishment figure, and cultivated a stance that has been dubbed reactionary, at times not without reason. He was internationally admired in his day as a kind of unofficial French cultural ambassador, yet he also assimilated music heard on his many travels in what were then colonies as far apart as Algeria and Indo-China. He was erudite, and in addition to composing and enjoying a career as one of the most outstanding pianists of his day, he wrote poetry and plays as well as criticism, edited Baroque music (notably Rameau), and was a keen astronomer, publishing scholarly articles on the subject.

‘His music both absorbs and reflects back his influences, while forging from them something new and original’

Saint-Saëns’s music has never been out of the repertory, though for many years after his death only a fraction of it was regularly heard. For decades, his most popular work was Le carnaval des animaux, written for private performance in 1886 but withheld from publication during his lifetime (apart from ‘Le cygne’) on the grounds that its humour might compromise the seriousness of his reputation. His Third (Organ) Symphony (actually his fifth; two of its predecessors are unnumbered), a handful of his concertos, Danse macabre (the third of his symphonic poems) and Samson et Dalila (the second of his 13 operas) were, until relatively recently, the works that consistently kept him before the public. His often remarkable chamber music did, it is true, hover on the fringes of the repertory, but some once-popular works actually slipped from view: as a teenager in the 1970s, I remember hearing – and falling in love with – Le rouet d’Omphale, the first of his symphonic poems, before it disappeared from schedules (in the UK, at any rate). When John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London recorded it as part of their ‘Escales’ disc (2/20), it felt like the unearthing of a neglected score.


The chief paradox of Saint-Saëns’s career is the fact that he was a central figure in a period from which he sometimes held himself aloof. ‘Art’, he once wrote, ‘is intended to create beauty and character. Feeling comes afterwards and art can very well do without it.’ His stance places him at odds with the prevailing subjectivism of 19th- and early 20th-century Romanticism, which still fuels our fascination with the emotionally embattled composer (Berlioz, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Wagner) pouring private feeling into works at once public and personal. Saint-Saëns never struggled in the same way. A child prodigy who rivalled Mozart, he composed with an extraordinary facility that would not have seemed remotely out of place in the 18th century, but which was frequently held against him in the 19th and 20th.

Saint-Saëns at Les barbares rehearsal, 1901 (photo: Jurine)

Saint-Saëns’s attempts to avoid personal expression in music, however, offset a private life that was on occasion difficult. His father died when he was a baby, and he was brought up by a domineering mother, who could be his worst critic (he rewrote the finale of his First Cello Sonata after she rubbished the original). Her death in 1888 triggered a major breakdown and he fled to Algiers, where he stayed for nearly a year, later adopting an unsettled, nomadic lifestyle that he maintained almost until his death. His marriage, in 1875, to Marie Laure Truffot, was unhappy. When their elder son died in 1878 in a fall from a window in their flat, and the younger one from pneumonia shortly after, Saint-Saëns blamed his wife’s neglect. In 1881 he walked out on her, never to see her again.

‘He disliked Impressionism, its perceived nebulousness running counter to his demands for clarity, balance and form’

There has been considerable discussion about his sexuality. He seemingly liked cross-dressing. Paul (son of Pauline) Viardot left us a description of him at one of his mother’s soirées, where he was in drag, singing the Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust; and when Saint-Saëns was on a visit to Moscow in 1875, he and Tchaikovsky improvised a ballet on the subject of Pygmalion and Galatea in a studio at the conservatoire, in which Saint-Saëns played the heroine, Tchaikovsky was his/her lover and Nikolai Rubinstein accompanied them on the piano. Saint-Saëns’s many trips to North Africa, some under the assumed name ‘Charles Sannois’, possibly involved gay sex tourism, which was relatively common at the time.

How far he succeeded in keeping private emotions out of his music remains a matter of debate – above all, when it comes to his chamber works. It is difficult, for instance, to escape the almost rootless unease that courses through his great E minor Piano Trio (1892), or the turbulence that pervades the First String Quartet (1899), also in E minor. Both suggest and evoke a sense of something deeply personal, whether Saint-Saëns wished it or no. Nor, of course, can we ignore our own emotional reactions when we listen. It’s impossible not to be swayed by the sensuality of the second act of Samson et Dalila, touched by the melancholy of the First Symphony, or unaffected by the intensity and lofty ceremonials of the Third. The élan and panache of the Second and Fifth Piano Concertos and the grace of the First Cello Concerto are similarly irresistible. And it’s hard not to be won over by the charm of Le carnaval des animaux, familiar though it is.


It is sometimes easy to forget that Saint-Saëns did much that was new and much that was remarkable throughout his career. His symphonies, written in full consciousness of a tradition extending back from Schumann and Mendelssohn to Mozart and Beethoven, were largely responsible for the consolidation of symphonic form in France between the experiments of Berlioz and Franck’s solitary cyclic work in D minor. He was the first French composer to write piano concertos, and his chamber music similarly forms a point of departure for much that came in its wake, notably influencing Fauré and Ravel.

His final concert – Paris, 1913; in later life, Saint-Saëns still possesses ‘a command and freshness that belie his years’ (photo: Leonard de Selva / Bridgeman Images)

Again, it is typical of his eclecticism that his music both absorbs and reflects back his influences, while forging from them something new and original. Schumann lurks behind the First Symphony (it was deemed ‘Germanic’ at the time), yet it remains uniquely Saint-Saëns’s own, while the Second Piano Concerto is self-consciously anchored in keyboard traditions going back to Bach. In the 1870s, he took up the Lisztian symphonic poem, bringing to it his own sense of formal clarity: Danse macabre and Le rouet d’Omphale are masterpieces of concision and irony, whereas Liszt, in contrast, is apt to be discursive. In his youth, Saint-Saëns much admired Wagner, though his attitude to him became notoriously ambivalent later in life.

‘He believed grand opéra could effectively counter the mythic apparatus of Wagnerism that he had grown increasingly to distrust’

That cosmopolitan stance, however, was eventually to change. In the wake of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870), a streak of nationalism crept into his thinking, and in 1871, along with Romain Bussine, professor of singing at the Paris Conservatoire, he founded the Société National de Musique – ‘to aid the production and popularisation of all serious works, whether published or not, by French composers’, as a statement of intent put it. Early members included Duparc, Fauré, Franck and Massenet, and many of the most important late 19th-century French orchestral and chamber works would probably never have been heard – or, indeed, written – without it.

Saint-Saëns was, however, manoeuvred out of the society in 1886, when Franck’s supporters, led by d’Indy, voted for the inclusion of foreign works in its programmes. It is from this point onwards that Saint-Saëns’s reputation as reactionary gains ground. He is sometimes described as anti-Wagnerian, though yet again his attitude was ambiguous. ‘I profoundly admire the works of Richard Wagner, despite their bizarre aspects,’ he wrote. ‘They are superior and powerful; that is enough for me. But I have not been, am not and never will be an adherent of the Wagnerian religion.’ His distrust of Wagnerism was later matched by his dislike of Impressionism, its perceived nebulousness running counter to his demands for clarity, balance and form. After hearing Le sacre du printemps, he reportedly said he thought Stravinsky insane.

A fascination with things oriental was something of a constant for Saint-Saëns, who first visited Algiers in 1873; and though he frequently travelled further afield, North Africa became his second home for much of his life. The orientalist strain in his imagination, however, predated his travels. His ravishing song-cycle Mélodies persanes dates from 1870 (he reworked it as the cantata Nuit persane in 1891), and he is known to have been familiar with the Arabic melody that forms the basis of the Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila as early as 1866 – he learnt it, so he claimed, from an army officer who took part in the Algerian conquest. A colonialist streak hovers over the Suite algérienne (1880), the last movement of which is a French military march, but Africa (1891) for piano and orchestra assimilates the rhythms and patterns of traditional North African music, even though some of its thematic material sounds unquestionably European. The delight he took in travel finds its greatest expression, perhaps, in his Fifth Piano Concerto, known as the Egyptian (1896), with its slow movement based on a traditional Nile boatman’s song, though the pentatonic melody that briefly takes its place also alludes to his journey from Port Said to Saigon in 1895.


Saint-Saëns’s career as an opera composer was chequered. He was hampered at the outset by the fact that he never won the Prix de Rome (it guaranteed entry into operatic circles), despite competing twice, in 1852 and 1864, and his initial identification as a composer of instrumental and orchestral music, deemed inferior to opera in some quarters, resulted in questions being asked as to whether he was suited to write for the stage at all. Then, like many of his contemporaries, he regularly fell foul of the whims, foibles and bureaucracies of theatre managements, not to mention the post-Meyerbeerian stranglehold exerted by the Paris Opéra itself.

Saint-Saëns at sea in 1915 (photo: Gibson Green / Alamy Stock Photo)

Le timbre d’argent
, his first attempt at opera, begun in 1864, was rewritten for several theatres before a projected premiere was cancelled during the Franco-Prussian War: it only reached the stage in 1877. The same year also saw the first performance, in Weimar, of Samson et Dalila (begun as an oratorio as early as 1859), which Liszt accepted after French theatres repeatedly fought shy of it. The first of his operas to be staged, the exotic La princesse jaune, was actually his third, but it drew a blank at its 1872 premiere, only gaining ground as japonaiserie became increasingly fashionable. He was regularly disparaged in the press as inferior to Massenet, which rankled him deeply. In later life, he turned away from Paris, establishing a more equable relationship with the opera house in Monte Carlo, where his last operas Hélène, L’ancêtre and Déjanire were first heard between 1904 and 1911.

Although some of Saint-Saëns’s stage works succeeded in his lifetime, most vanished from the repertory after his death, with the principal exception of Samson et Dalila, the popularity of which dates from its French premiere in Rouen in 1890 – though the Paris Opéra didn’t produce it until 1892. Representing his eclecticism at its best, its familiarity is such that we easily overlook its originality. Chromatic harmonies and thematic transformation reminiscent of Liszt and Wagner (they unquestionably lurk behind some of it) are offset by choral scenes reminiscent of Bach’s Passions, and an orientalism that is by turns suggestive and blatant, all of it forged into a streamlined dramatic unity that has the concentrated power of classical tragedy. It was not, however, his only great work for the stage.

In the 1880s, he turned to the dominant French form of Meyerbeerian grand opéra, believing its imposing scale, heightened theatricality and dramatic emphasis on the convulsive turning points of history could effectively counter the mythic apparatus of Wagnerism that he had grown increasingly to distrust. In the process, he produced two of the finest works in the genre. Henry VIII (completed 1882) strikingly, if inaccurately, dramatises the collapse of the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his growing fascination with Anne Boleyn and, in the extraordinary synod scene, his decision to break with the Catholic Church. It’s a tremendous work in many respects – slow-moving, yet remarkably intense. Some of its melodic material derives from Tudor music, which Saint-Saëns studied on a visit to England, though he also weaves leitmotifs into a score that nevertheless carefully delineates between recitative and set-piece arias and ensembles. Hugely successful in his lifetime, it remains his most frequently heard opera after Samson et Dalila.

Ascanio, however, had an altogether more vexed history. Saint-Saëns completed it in 1888, shortly before his mother’s death and his subsequent breakdown, entrusting fellow composer Ernest Guiraud with overseeing the premiere before he headed to Africa. Exactly who was responsible for what followed remains unclear, but by the time the opera reached the stage two years later, it had been cut to shreds, with two scenes awkwardly telescoped together. It was not heard complete until 2017, when it was given in concert in Geneva conducted by Guillaume Tourniaire – forming the basis of a revelatory live recording from B Records. Dramatising Benvenuto Cellini’s sojourn at the court of François I of France, during which he fell foul of the king’s scheming mistress the Duchesse d’Étampes, it’s a powerful – and telling – work about the nature of art and the dangers of the artist’s emotional involvement in it. Samson et Dalila apart, it is arguably the composer’s operatic masterpiece.

Recordings and scholarship have crucially changed our understanding of Saint-Saëns’s operas. In addition to B Records’ Ascanio, Palazzetto Bru Zane has given us the stringently classical Les barbares (1901), the sensual Proserpine (1887), Le timbre d’argent and, most recently, La princesse jaune, though it is to be regretted that Covid restrictions necessitated the cancellation of a planned recording of Déjanire. Hugh Macdonald’s Saint-Saëns and the Stage, meanwhile, was published in 2019, a benchmark study, and a major point of departure for future scholarship.


In the last decades of his life, Saint-Saëns became notoriously tetchy, and his nationalism turned strident during the First World War, when he advocated banning Austro-German music – even Mozart and Beethoven – from the French repertory. Even so, he continued to write works that can surprise us. In 1898, with his librettist Louis Gallet, he embarked upon the first of what nowadays would be described as community projects: Déjanire (not to be confused with the opera of the same name, which came later), an adaptation of Sophocles’s Women of Trachis, written for performance at the Roman amphitheatre at Béziers in the south of France, deploying professional actors and vast amateur forces, including a 200-strong chorus and two military bands. Parysatis, also for Béziers and using even larger forces (20 harps, 25 trumpets, 17 horns), followed in 1902.

Saint-Saëns with Egyptologist Georges Legrain at the Karnak temple in 1912 (photo: NPL-DEA Picture Library / Bridgeman Images)

In 1904, meanwhile, he went into a studio to record the opening of the Second Piano Concerto and an extract from Africa, playing with a command and freshness that belie his years. And in 1908, he was the first composer ever to write a score for a silent film: L’assassinat du duc de Guise, directed by Charles Le Bargy and André Calmettes. At the time of writing, it is available on YouTube and is fascinating both to watch and to hear. Like Debussy (he would have loathed mention in the same sentence), he was working on a series of instrumental sonatas at the time of his death, which similarly remained unfinished as a set, though those he completed embody the classical beauty that he valued to the last.

The sonatas brought to an end an extraordinary career in which Saint-Saëns accomplished much and in which his influence on French music was unquestionably profound. Much of his work has been restored to the repertory of late, as new generations of performers and musicologists have returned to, and revalued, his output, though there is also still a great deal to rediscover. His achievement, however, was remarkable, and very much something to celebrate as we reach the centenary of his death.


‘Complete Symphonies’

ORTF National Orchestra / Jean Martinon


Released in instalments in the 1970s, Jean Martinon’s cycle of the complete symphonies, including those unpublished in Saint-Saëns’s lifetime, was deemed groundbreaking in its day and remains something of a benchmark. The famous Third is magnificently done, but there’s so much more to enjoy here, including beautiful performances of the underrated First and the unnumbered Urbs Roma Symphony in F (1856).

Piano trios

Gould Trio

Champs Hill 

Saint-Saëns’s chamber music is regarded by some as his greatest achievement, and he composed little finer than the two piano trios, written nearly 30 years apart, in 1864 and 1892. The Gould Trio explores their subtleties in performances of remarkable intensity which call into question Saint-Saëns’s much-discussed determination to avoid the expression of personal emotion
in his own music.

Read the review

Piano Concertos: No 2 and No 5, ‘Egyptian’. Solo piano works

Bertrand Chamayou pf French National Orchestra / Emmanuel Krivine


Bertrand Chamayou and Emmanuel Krivine place the austerely beautiful Second Piano Concerto alongside the glorious travelogue of the Fifth, before Chamayou rounds off the programme with a selection of exquisite piano miniatures. An outstanding disc, with performances of the highest calibre, this was winner of Gramophone’s Recording of the Year Award in 2019.

Read the review

Samson et Dalila

Plácido Domingo ten Elena Obraztsova mez Renato Bruson bar et al; Paris Orch Ch; Paris Orch / Daniel Barenboim


A classical tragedy with a biblical narrative, and a score that embraces influences as disparate as Bach, Wagner and traditional North African music, Samson et Dalila embodies Saint-Saëns’s eclectic style at its best. It’s been well served on disc, especially, perhaps, by Daniel Barenboim’s powerhouse recording, made in tandem with performances at the 1978 Orange opera festival in France, and quite superbly sung.

‘Mélodies avec orchestre’

Yann Beuron ten Tassis Christoyannis bar Svizzera Italiana Orchestra / Markus Poschner


Saint-Saëns wrote more than 150 songs, and many are only just starting to be rediscovered. This CD sponsored by Palazzetto Bru Zane, which has tirelessly championed Saint-Saëns’s lesser-known vocal works, offers a cross-section of the 23 he orchestrated himself, including the sardonic vocal version of Danse macabre and the ravishing Mélodies persanes.

Read the review


Jean-François Lapointe bar Joé Bertili bass-bar Bernard Richter ten et al; Geneva University of Music Chor & Orch / Guillaume Tourniaire

B Records

Ascanio (completed 1888) never reached the stage in Saint-Saëns’s lifetime (nor, indeed, for decades afterwards) in the form in which he intended it. It was not heard complete until Guillaume Tourniaire gave it in concert in Geneva (2017), where this live recording was made – a revelatory achievement and a wonderful vindication of one of the greatest French grand operas.

Read the review

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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