Camille Saint-Saëns

By Strasser, Michael | Notes, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Camille Saint-Saëns


Strasser, Michael, Notes


Camille Saint-Saëns. By Jean Gallois. (Collection Musique/Musicologie.) Sprimont: Mardaga, 2004. [382 p. ISBN 2-87009-851-0. euro36.] Index.

After decades of relative neglect, French music and musical life of the late nineteenth century has in recent years become the subject of renewed interest. Scholars have begun to reexamine the rather simplistic generalizations about the music, institutions, and major figures of this period that had been codified during the first decades of the twentieth century and then passed down without question for several generations. Our understanding of one of the most important and interesting periods in French musical history has, as a result, grown substantially.

One of the most important manifestations of this scholarly interest has been the recent publication of major new biographies devoted to composers such as César Franck, Gabriel Fauré, Vincent d'Indy, and Ernest Chausson, each of which has contributed much to our increasingly more realistic and nuanced view of French music and musical life of the later nineteenth century. Arguably, the most important French musician of this time was Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns; it is thus not surprising that he has been the subject of no fewer than three books over the past decade, two English-language biographies (by Brian Rees and Stephen Studd) issued in 1999, and now a new work by Jean Gallois, a prolific French writer whose earlier subjects range from Lully through Schumann and Wagner to Franck and Chausson. (Gallois's 1994 biography of Chausson was awarded the Grand Prix Bernier of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts.)

Making much use of Saint-Saèns's many writings, his correspondence (many excerpts from which are published here for the first time), and the observations and opinions of contemporaries, Gallois has crafted an engaging introduction to the life, ideas, and works of this extremely gifted and prolific composer. His book generally follows a chronological approach, and discussions of Saint-Saëns's music are integrated into the recounting of the composer's life. Gallois's comments on various works-he offers at least a few lines about all of the composer's substantial compositions, as well as some that could be considered peripheral-are insightful but brief and are sometimes accompanied by simple music examples, usually illustrating a brief melodic idea or rhythm. Brief synopses of the composer's theatrical works are provided as well. The discussion is nontechnical and easily comprehensible by an informed amateur, reminding one of particularly well-informed program or liner notes.

The narrative is supplemented by occasional brief digressions on contemporary political, literary, artistic, and musical events which provide a useful context for the biographical events under discussion. It is extremely interesting to note, for example, which composer, artist, or writer was born or died in a particular year, which literary work or painting had recently captured the public's imagination, or, for example, that at the same time Saint-Saëns was composing Déjanire, in which he tries to capture the spirit of ancient Greek tragedy, the movement to revive the Olympic games was gaining momentum (p. 311). Other digressions offer short explanations of, for example, the reasons Wagner's Tannhäuser was rejected by the French public in 1860 (pp. 82-83) or the construction and history of the harmonium (p. 44).

The text contains a generous selection of photographs, caricatures, engravings of opera scenes, etc. As is usually the case with French books, the index provides only proper names of individuals. There is, unfortunately, no bibliography.

The author provides much biographical detail, but avoids the temptation to lapse into an endless recitation of Saint-Saëns's many activities and travels. There is enough of such recounting, however, to give the reader an appreciation for the composer's seemingly boundless energy as well as glimpses into his daily life both at home and on tour. …

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