In the following article, guest author Caroline Bennett discusses the life and music of Camille Saint-Saëns. I have listened to and enjoyed many of Saint-Saëns’ works, including Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and The Carnival of the Animals. Two years ago, I attended a live performance of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony No. 3. A theme from the symphony is in the Disney movie Babe and is also the tune for the hymn “O Lord, I Love You, My Shield, My Tower.” Beyond merely this theme, though, Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony is a masterpiece, and it is one of the most majestic pieces of music I have ever heard.
“I live in music like a fish in water.”—Camille Saint-Saëns, 1835-1921
Some composers have a very distinctive sound, like Johann Strauss or Franz Schubert. Some only write music for a few kinds of events, like the composers in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Camille Saint-Saëns, on the other hand, was adept at composing music of all styles and for all occasions, and his pieces constantly surprise listeners with new sounds.
Born in Paris in 1835, Saint-Saëns made his debut as a pianist at the age of 10, and three years later began studying the organ at the Paris Conservatory. Saint-Saëns developed into an amazing organist; the celebrated pianist and composer Franz Liszt declared him to be the finest organist that ever lived, a master of improvisation. What truly made Saint-Saëns stand out, however, was the fact that not only was he an outstanding performer, but he was also a wonderful conductor and composer. Though many French Romantic composers were eager to be revolutionary in their harmonies and sounds—like Claude Debussy—Saint-Saëns’ compositions were rooted in the classical tradition, and his pieces ranged from operas to symphonies to solos. What makes his works distinctive is the fact that they all contain beautiful melodies and harmonies, and he seems to always bring out the best of each instrument. For example, in his famous work The Carnival of the Animals, Saint-Saëns used the wide range of sounds on the piano to not only create a majestic march for the lion, but also a flowing background for the cello’s imitation of the swan and the shimmering, magical effect of an aquarium. The Carnival of the Animals is perhaps Saint-Saëns’ most fun composition and is especially good for children because they can guess what animal is being imitated in the music, while at the same time learn the various sounds of orchestral instruments (like the violin, cello, contrabassoon, and xylophone). The most majestic and glorious of Saint-Saëns’ pieces, however, is his Organ Symphony No. 3, in which he perfectly blends together the thrilling sounds of the organ with the orchestra. But Saint-Saëns wrote many other notable works, as well. In his opera Samson and Delilah, Saint-Saëns used Arabian scales and sounds to create a Middle Eastern mood, and the opera also features the famous aria “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice.” Danse Macabre is a relatively short but extremely tense piece with a gorgeous melody, quite similar to one found in the Carnival of the Animals. And in his Oratorio de Noel Saint-Saëns demonstrated his prowess in combining different instruments by writing this Christmas work for organ, harp, string quartet, chorus, and voice soloists.
Though he wrote a number of works for the church, Saint-Saëns was not a Christian; he lived his life only desiring liberty and the ability to make music. He is said to have been critical of others, sarcastic, and ill-tempered, yet despite all of these flaws, he was an inspiring music teacher and obviously had a great appreciation of beauty. Through his music Christians can be filled with awe of the God who created music, who cherishes beauty, and who gives man the creativity and desire to discover and create a carnival of sounds.
♪ Berliner Philharmoniker, James Levine, and Simon Preston. Saint-Saëns: Symphony No.3 “Organ.” Decca Records, 1987.
♪ Saint-Saëns, Camille, Charles Dutoit, London Sinfonietta, Philharmonia Orchestra and Cristina Ortiz. Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals / Danse Macabre. Deutsche Grammophon, 1990.