Swanning Around

By Jeal, Erica | Musical Times, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Swanning Around


Jeal, Erica, Musical Times


Swarming around ERICA JEAL

Saint-Saens: a critical biography Stephen Studd

Cygnus Arts (London, 1999); ii, 342pp; 300. ISBN 1 900 54165 3.

Studies of Camille Saint-Saens' life and works have been few and far between in recent years. Stephen Studd prefaces his new biography by explaining that he was prompted to write his book to fill the gap he himself found on the library shelf; when he started his research, the last biography of the composer in English was Saint-Saens and his circle by James Harding, written twenty-five years earlier, in 1965.

The relative lack of detailed studies of Saint-Saens' life and works can be partly explained by the fact that, following his death in 1935, his music has never really been in fashion. Like many people, Studd first encountered the composer's music during school, in the form of Le carnaval des animaux and Danse macabre. Sadly for Saint-Sans, many people still associate his music with the classroom. Indeed, he considered works like these to be bagatelles, and forbade publication of

Le carnaval des animaux until after his death.

The 'serious' works for which he wanted to be known have never achieved such popularity Saint-Saens equated success in opera with acknowledgement as a first-rate composer but, for all his struggles to be so recognised, of his twelve operas only Samson et Dalila has remained in the repertoire. His orchestral and chamber works have been more successful; a handful of them are still frequently performed. Yet there is a huge amount of music that has yet to be unearthed.

Saint-Saens was an extraordinarily prolific composer, producing works from the age of three until his death in 1921, aged eighty-six. His career spanned the era between the works of Berlioz and Debussy, two radical composers, but history is not so kind to the conservative who linked them. The fact that SaintSaens was so productive has contributed to his subdued reputation as a composer, and even a lover of his music such as Studd has to acknowledge that some of his pieces bear fewer signs of great effort or inspiration than others. At the same time, though, Studd does argue for some lesser-known works, describing them vividly as he does so.

While broadly following Saint-Saens's life chronologically, each of Studd's sixteen chapters concentrates on an aspect of the composer's character or work. …

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