The Saint-Saens Enigma

By Stove, R. J. | New Criterion, January 2000 | Go to article overview

The Saint-Saens Enigma


Stove, R. J., New Criterion


Poor Saint-Saens! He was blessed from childhood with a polished facility of utterance that made most of his fellow composers (Ravel excepted) seem like hysterical tyros by comparison. But somehow, even at the apex of his renown, Camille Saint-Saens remained eminently patronizable. Just how high his repute was during this century's early decades, within France above all, bears remembering. Saint-Saens--he died in 1921, having exercised his creativity for a record-breaking eighty-two years--lived to see a statue of himself unveiled at Dieppe, outside a museum that displayed, to edify pilgrims, such relics as his great-aunt's pincushion. Gounod called him in complete seriousness "the French Beethoven." The novelist Camille Mauclair likened Saint-Saens's artistic achievements to Racine's; in 1919 a Parisian critic, Jean Montargis, ranked Saint-Saens alongside Berlioz and Rameau as one of France's three greatest musicians; and French peasant women with more piety than literacy mistook cigarette cards containing Saint-Saens's portrait for holy pictures of a saint called Saens.

Yet the more tributes officialdom heaped on him (these included the Legion of Honor, the German Order of Merit, doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge, and a request--which he declined--to write Turkey's national anthem), the more his detractors scorned him as the musical equivalent of an artiste pompier. Romain Rolland confided to his diary in 1907 that Saint-Saens's "music hasn't the slightest interest ... one can talk for hours, among musicians, of French music without even thinking of pronouncing the name of Saint-Saens." Ravel, nine years later, was much more pert:

   Saint-Saens has informed a delighted public that since the war began he has
   composed music for the stage, solo songs, an elegy, and a piece for the
   trombone. If he'd been making shell-cases instead it might have been all
   the better for music.

To personal irritation at Saint-Saens's liverish temperament (the late Martin Cooper, a British musical journalist of considerable wit and patchy erudition, described the Frenchman as having died "full of years and malice") was added, especially after his death, resentment at his proud anti-modernist stance. He struck self-conscious avantgardists as that most vexing of figures: an anti-modernist who once had been a pro-modernist. Though in youth he had shocked diehards by championing Wagner, he afterwards placed strict, perhaps excessive, limits on his own capacity for musical tolerance. In particular, he refused--both as composer and as critic--to accept the "historical inevitability" of Debussy's musical revolution. With considerable skill, he contrived to finesse Debussy out of a widely expected place in the Academie des Beaux-Arts (while aggravating the affront by maintaining unruffled politeness to Debussy's face). Therefore, Debussy's own claque could, and still can, see in him nothing more than a dangerous fool.

Only in the 1980s did Saint-Saens's representation in concert halls outside France amount to more than the few, seldom characteristic, popular hits--Carnival of the Animals, Danse Macabre, the Organ Symphony, the Second Piano Concerto, a couple of snippets from Samson et Dalila--which had kept his name barely alive during the previous five decades. And not till the 1990s did an adequate cross-section of Saint-Saens's oeuvre become available. Even today, most of it remains invisible under library shelves' dust: who now can boast familiarity with his operas Henry VIII, Ascanio, L'Ancetre, or La Princesse Jaune? With his English-language oratorio The Promised Land, his ballet Javotte, his two-piano Variations on a Theme of Beethoven? With his incidental music to Alfred de Musset's play On ne badine pas avec l'amour, his Second Cello Concerto, his psalm setting "Super flumina" with its outlandish instrumental accompaniment of four saxophones, or, indeed, with two-thirds of the 169 pieces that he allowed to see publication? …

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