“Nothing is more difficult than talking about music: if it is a prickly business for musicians, it is almost impossible for anyone else; the strongest, subtlest minds go astray.”
Camille Saint-Saëns had a special genius all his own, one that embraced flair and streetwise wit. He wrote more that 200 works, encompassing all sorts of genres from 13 operas, including Samson et Dalila (1877), chamber and vocal works, the first film score by a well-known composer, L’Assassinat du duc de Guise (1908), even a mini-extravaganza for an orchestra of toy instruments titled Les Odeurs de Paris (1871).
Although he’s a famous name, most people only know a handful of his works from the Romantic era, especially Danse Macabre (1874) and The Carnival Of The Animals (1886).
Raised by his mother and great-aunt, his father died when he was a baby, Saint-Saëns was as desperately precocious as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, composing his first piece at just three-years-old. Despite a meteoric rise as a child prodigy with a performing career, he once offered to play as an encore, from memory, any one of the 32 Beethoven sonatas, he had already decided at an early age on becoming a composer. A classic over-achiever, he was also an expert at Mathematics, Zoology, Botany, Paleontology and Astronomy. He used his money earned from concerts to commission a telescope constructed to his own specifications.
He was also an excellent writer, and his short play Writer’s Cramp is still frequently produced in a translation by gay actor Simon Callow, who describes it as: “a bon-bon – a slight satire on the modern school of novel writing and theatre, a game of art and life“.
“I love his music most of all for its extraordinary elegance and individual variety of wit. As he said himself, he wrote music ‘as an apple tree grows apples’. His craft is elevated to a pitch of such strength and confidence that he’s able to produce things of beauty to order. I like to think of Saint-Saëns as a wonderful chef. Nothing is ever too heavy; and always there’s some fresh, original ingredient, some spice that he’s found in the Orient or picked up on the Nile to create an excellent new culinary sensation. He’s the Escoffier of music!”
“Art is intended to create beauty and character. Feeling only comes afterwards and art can very well do without it. In fact, it is very much better off when it does.”
Yet, all the debonair flair of his music was just a mask for a troubled man who preferred not to betray his darker side. Like so many great comedians, his art concealed an existence that contained plenty of tragedy.
Saint-Saëns was queer but he tried for years to live a “normal” life. When he was 40-years-old, he married 17-year-old Marie Truffot, the sister of one of his young pupils. The marriage was a sham. They lived together with Saint-Saëns’s domineering mother in a fourth-floor apartment in Latin Quarter of Paris. Saint-Saëns’s mother disapproved, and her son was difficult to live with. The couple had two sons, both of whom died young. In 1878, André, two-years-old, fell from a window of the flat and died; the younger, Jean-François, died of pneumonia six weeks later, at six-months old. Saint-Saëns, who, in a stroke of horrible irony, had been writing his Requiem just before the loss of his children.
The couple continued to live together for three years, but he blamed her for André’s accident. While the couple were on holiday, he went out for a walk and never went back. He never saw his wife again. Despite the pain in his life, he hosted lavish soirees where he supposedly performed in drag.
He vanished for a second time after his mother’s death in 1888 without a trace. He turned up in the Canary Islands, living under an assumed name. For the rest of his life, he travelled extensively, particularly in North Africa; and his wanderings helped to inspire such works as his Africa Fantasy and his Fifth Piano Concerto, which uses motifs from Egyptian music. He began spending winters in French-speaking Algeria, which became a favorite holiday destination for European homosexuals.
His disappearances were probably an attempt to escape his memories, or to pursue a life in places where he could more easily and anonymously fulfill his true sexual desires. And, he was possibilly trying to recover from the unrequited love of his life, his pupil and protégé, the handsome and rampantly straight Gabriel Fauré, who owed the success of his musical career to Saint-Saëns.
In his last years, despite having a fan in Queen Victoria, who personally begged Covent Garden to stage his operas to no avail, and being awarded the Grand Croix de Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest award, Saint-Saëns was a solitary, bitter old man. It seems that he was only happy in the company of his poodle, Dalila. In fact, he had grown to prefer animals to humans. That affection shines through in the flamboyant frippery of his most recognizable piece The Carnival Of The Animals, which he prevented from being published in his lifetime, suspecting, correctly, that it would become too popular for his own good.
In 1900, after a decade without a permanent home, Saint-Saëns rented an apartment not far from his old residence, the scene of his tragedies. This remained his home for the rest of his life. He continued to travel abroad frequently. He went to London and to Berlin, where until WW I, he was a major celebrity. He travelled in Italy, Spain, Monaco and the South of France. In 1906 and 1909 he made highly successful tours of the USA, as a performer and conductor.
Like Cher after him, Saint-Saëns gave a long series of farewell concerts. In 1913, because of the war, he gave many performances raising money for charities, some across the Atlantic, despite the danger from German warships.
But, he hated the new 20th century music, popular and symphonic, and he called Igor Stravinsky insane. Of Claude Debussy, he wrote: “We must at all costs bar the door against a man capable of such atrocities; they should be put next to the cubist pictures.” But, I like to think he would have liked The Beatles.
In November 1921, Saint-Saëns gave a recital for a large invited audience; then he left for Algiers, where he died without warning of a heart attack a few weeks later. His body was taken back to Paris, and after a state funeral, he was buried at the Cimetière de Montparnasse. Heavily veiled, among the mourners from France’s political and artistic élite, was his widow whom he had last seen in 1881.
“People have always been disappointed in their search for final causes. It may be simply that there are no such things. At any rate, whether they do exist or not, it does not make the slightest bit of difference to us… The joys which nature gives to us and does not withhold entirely from even the most abandoned among us – the discovery of new truths, the enjoyment of art, the spectacle of suffering eased and attempts to cure it as far as possible – all these are enough for the happiness of life.”