Camille Saint-Saëns

Portrait of Camille Saint-Saens

Camille Saint-Saëns was a French composer, organist, conductor and pianist of the Romantic era. He was born on 9th October 1835 in Paris, France and died on 16th December 1921 in Algiers, Algeria. 

Major Works

“Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” (1863) 
Second Piano Concerto (1868) 
First Cello Concerto (1872) 
“Danse Macabre” (1874) 
“Samson and Delilah” (1877) 
Third Violin Concerto (1880) 
Third (“Organ”) Symphony (1886) 
“The Carnival of the Animals” (1886)

Biography Timeline

Camille Saint-Saëns was born on 9th October 1835 in Paris. His father was Jacques-Joseph-Victor Saint-Saëns an employee in the French Ministry of the Interior who died of tuberculosis shortly after the christening. His mother was Françoise-Clémence, née Collin and Camille was an only child. As a baby he was sent to live with a nurse at Corbeil 18 miles from Paris and came back to Paris when he was two to live with his mother and her aunt, Charlotte Masson. Charlotte taught him the basics of the piano.

1842: He becomes a pupil of Camille-Marie Stamaty.

1846: He gives his first recital aged ten at the Salle Pleyel playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B flat and Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto. 

1848: He is admitted to the Paris Conservatoire where he studies the organ under François Benoist. Saint-Saens liked him as a teacher but didn’t rate him as a player but he also taught several other famous composers such as Cesar Franck and Georges Bizet.

1849: He wins the Conservatoire’s second prize for organ.

1850: He writes a symphony in A major and the choral piece, “Les Djinns”.

1851: He begins formal composition studies under Fromental Halevy.

1852: He competes for France’s Prix de Rome but doesn’t win however he does win first prize for his organ work “Ode à Sainte-Cécile” given by the Société Sainte-Cécile in Paris. His first mature piece to his mind is “Trois Morceaux” written for the harmonium.

1853: After leaving the Conservatoire Saint-Saëns takes up the post of organist at the church of Saint Merri in Paris. He writes the Symphony in E flat which includes military fanfares which becomes popular due to the rise of Napoleon the Third and the Second Empire. This wins first prize from the Société Sainte-Cécile. Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt and Gioachino Rossini spot his talent and encourage him with his career.

1855: Saint-Saens Symphony No. 1 is first performed. 

1858: He moves to become the organist at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris. This is a lucrative post due to all the fees from weddings and other services at this prestigious venue. Franz Liszt hears him play there and declares him to be the greatest organist in the world.

1861: He becomes professor of piano at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris, (sometimes known as the Niedermeyer School).

1863: His work “Spartacus” wins first prize at a competition organised by the Société Saint Cecile de Bordeaux.

1864: He causes surprise by competing a second time for the Prix de Rome even though he is now more established however he still doesn’t win.

1865: He leaves his post at the Niedermeyer School to pursue his composing career.

1867: His cantata “Les Noces de Prométhée” wins the composition prize of the Grande Fête Internationale in Paris beating over a hundred other entrants. Daniel Auber, Hector Berlioz, Charles Gounod and Giuseppe Verdi are on the committee. 

1868: The Second Piano Concerto is given its premiere.

1870: The Franco Prussian War breaks out and Saint-Saens serves in the National Guard.

1871: He composes the symphonic Poem “Le Rouet d’Omphale” (Omphale’s Spinning Wheel). During the Paris Commune in March until May Saint-Saens seeks refuge in England after the Abbé Deguerry is murdered by rebels at the Madeleine. He gives recitals to earn a living there. After the war he helps found the Societe Nationale de Musique (National Society of Music), which promotes performances of the most significant new French orchestral works.

1872: “Le Rouet d’Omphale” receives its premiere at the Sociéte Nationale in January. In June Saint-Saëns has one of his operas staged at the Opera Comique in Paris, “La Princesse Jaune” (The Yellow Princess), a light romantic work.

1875: He marries Marie-Laure Truffot, the sister of one his pupils. She is nineteen and he is nearly forty and his mother does not approve.

1877: His opera “Samson and Delila” is not allowed the be performed in Paris due to the objections of portraying biblical characters on the stage. Instead it is premiered in Weimar with the help of Franz Liszt. In February the full-length opera “Le Timbre d’Argent” (The Silver Bell) is performed by the Theatre Lyrique in Paris.

1878: Saint-Saëns had two sons however the oldest one, André aged two, falls from a window of their flat and is killed only for Jean-François to die of pneumonia six weeks later, aged six months. He begins touring as a pianist and is admired by Richard Wagner.

1881: He is elected to the Institut de France at his second attempt. In July he and his wife go to the spa town of La Bourboule for a holiday but on the 28th he disappears from the hotel and sends a letter later telling his wife he will not be returning. By all accounts he blamed her for the death of his sons and they never saw each other again.

1883: His opera “Henry the Eighth” is staged at the Paris Opera and is a great success.

1886: His Symphony No. 3, commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London and with its use of the organ, is premiered in London. Saint-Saëns conducts the symphony and is the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 conducted by Sir Arthur Sullivan. The symphony was dedicated to the memory of Liszt. Later in the year he writes “Le Carnaval des Animaux” (The Carnival of the Animals) which was not performed in his lifetime but has become a staple of the repertoire since.

1887: His “Proserpine” is scheduled for the Opéra-Comique but unfortunately the theatre burns down just before the premiere. 

1888: In December his mother dies and it affects him deeply and even contemplates suicide. He goes to Algeria for a few months to recuperate.

1890: “Samson and Delila” is finally staged in Paris at the Théâtre Eden and has since become his most popular opera.

1891: He writes the fantasia “Africa”.

1893: He writes the opera “Phryne”. In June he performs at an event for the Cambridge University Musical Society in England. Max Bruch and Pyotr Tchaikovsky are also present.

1895: He completes the Piano Concerto No 5. 

1896: The fifth Piano Concerto, known as the “Egyptian” is premiered at the Salle Pleyel.

1900: He moves to a flat in the Rue de Courcelles in Paris where he remains for the rest of his life.

1902: He writes the Cello Concerto No 2.

1906: He tours the United States as a pianist and conductor.

1909: On his second tour of the United States he premieres his “Praise ye the Lord” in New York.

1913: He composes the oratorio “The Promised Land,” for the Three Choirs Festival in England. He is not present at the notorious premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in Paris but later on hearing a concert version a year later gives the opinion that Stravinsky is insane. Saint-Saens officially gives his retirement concert in Paris but later gives many benefit concerts for the First World War effort.

1921: In November he gives a recital at the Institut de France for a large audience and is reported to be as vivid and precise as ever. In December he visits Algiers intending to over-winter there.

Camille Saint-Saëns While died of a heart attack on 16th December 1921 in Algiers, Algeria. His body was taken back to Paris, and given a state funeral at the Madeleine. Hiding at the back of the church was his wife Marie-Laure, whom he had not seen since 1881. He was buried at the Cimetiere du Montparnasse. 

Further Information

List of compositions by Saint-Saens.