Born less than a decade after the death of Beethoven, and still composing three years after that of Debussy, Saint-Saëns lived through the Romantic movement as a Classicist of boundless skill, energy and knowledge. His prolific output and his artistic beliefs held firm to timeless principles of beauty and form. As a result his music never seemed to grow old-fashioned (except to card-carrying Wagnerians) and by the end, when a generation of neo-Classicists - including Stravinsky and Poulenc - was on the rise and Saint-Saëns had turned to elegantly elliptical woodwind sonatas, it had started to sound contemporary all over again.
He had been a Parisian child prodigy, entering the Conservatoire at 13 to study organ and composition. His fluency stayed with him as his abilities flowered. An inquiring mind developed, taking in lasting interests from literature to astronomy. His five piano concertos show his characteristic qualities at their finest: suave melody and incisive articulation, orchestral clarity and colour, an often original use of conventional forms, and an expressive idiom that lives at the nerve-ends, generating unstoppable verve and, occasionally, great intensity, without lingering over the more profound moments.
These qualities fed into his operas, though here a greater capacity for spacious heart-searching would have been invaluable. New works of his were regularly staged, but his only lasting success was the relatively early Samson et Dalila, in which erotic obsession and dynamic action could carry the show. It was first produced (in 1877) not in opera-mad Paris, but by his friend Liszt in Weimar. The friendship bore fruit both ways, because Saint-Saëns adopted Liszt's genre of the symphonic poem and then used its methods of thematic transformation in his Third Symphony (the 'Organ', premiered in London in 1886), itself one of the founding masterpieces of a new French symphonic tradition. Ever he wit, he immediately used one of the most striking textures in his symphony for the 'Aquarium' of The Carnival of the Animals - though he banned public performance of the work in his lifetime.
Within the French musical world Saint-Saëns was an effective and - for all his later loathing of Debussy's music - a generally progressive influence. He was the driving force behind the Société Nationale de Musique, formed in 1871 to promote French instrumental music. The tragedy of his life was personal: emotional repression, a failed marriage and the early deaths of his two sons.
Profile © Robert Maycock