Camille Saint-Saëns on Music and Musicians

Camille Saint-Saëns on Music and Musicians

Camille Saint-Saëns on Music and Musicians

Camille Saint-Saëns on Music and Musicians


Camille Saint-Sa ns is a memorable figure not only for his successes as a composer of choral and orchestral works, and the eternally popular opera Samson et Dalila, but also because he was a keen observer of the musical culture in which he lived. A composer of vast intelligence and erudition, Saint-Sa ns was at the same time one of the foremost writers on music in his day. From Wagner, Liszt and Debussy to Milhaud and Stravinsky, Saint-Sa ns was at the center of the elite musical and culturalfin de si cleand early 20th Century world. He championed Schumann and Wagner in France at a period when these composers were regarded as dangerous subversives whose music should be kept well away from the impressionable student. Yet Saint-Sa ns himself had no aspirations to being a revolutionary, and his appreciation of Wagner the composer was tempered by his reservations over Wagner the philosopher and dramatist, suspicious as he was of what he called "the Germanic preoccupation with going beyond reality." Whether defending Meyerbeer against charges of facility or Berlioz against those who questioned his harmonic grasp, Saint-Sa ns was always his own man: in both cases, he claimed, it was "not the absence of faults but the presence of virtues" that distinguishes the good composer.

Saint-Sa ns's writings provide a well-argued counter-discourse to the strong modernist music critics who rallied around Debussy and Ravel during thefin de si cle.And above all, they demonstrate a brilliantly sharp and active brain, expressing itself through prose of a Classical purity and balance, enlivened throughout with flashes of wit and, at times, of sheer malice.

In this generously annotated volume, renowned scholar, seasoned translator and radio broadcaster Roger Nichols brings some of the composer's most striking and evocative writings brilliantly to life in English translation, many for the first time. Nichols has carefully chosen these selections for their intrinsic interest as historical documents to create a well-balanced and engaging view of the man, the music, and the age.


Many years after seeing Saint-Saëns at the first concert performance of Le sacre du printemps at the Casino de Paris in 1914, Stravinsky remembered him as “a sharp little man”. If we take this judgment as being not entirely friendly, then Stravinsky was hardly alone in finding Saint-Saëns’s sharpness something to be negotiated, a dangerous reef in the far from untroubled waters of Parisian musical life.

The “Saint-Saëns problem”, insofar as there was one, stemmed from three interconnecting factors: in today’s parlance, he was nobody’s fool, he was an elitist, and he tended to shoot from the hip. Also it was not really possible to ignore him, or at least not until a little way into the twentieth century when, beset by Impressionism, Symbolism and various other isms, he began to indulge in his fossil impersonations—an act that did his posthumous standing no good at all. in retrospect we can see that in his very last years, between 1917 and his death in 1921, there was quite a lot to be fossilized about, especially in Paris. His reaction to Milhaud’s Protée, that music in several keys at once could never be anything other than a hubbub and that happily there were still some lunatic asylums in France, was hardly surprising if we compare that music to his own luminous Clarinet Sonata of the same era, about as firmly in E flat as anything could be; and the fact that Milhaud framed this response and stuck it on his wall does not necessarily prove the case either way. It has to be said though that, nearly 90 years later, Saint-Saëns’s piece is heard rather more often than Milhaud’s.

On the surface, this sharpness is evident when we consider all the things he was against. “Theories are of no great value; works are everything”; “literary people are music’s worst enemies”; “few people understand art” . . .

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