Born: October 9, 1835, Paris, France
Died: December 16, 1921, Algiers, Algeria
Regarded by Hans von Bülow as “the greatest musical mind” of his time, Camille Saint-Saëns composed over 300 works, among the best-known of which are the “Organ” Symphony No. 3, the opera Samson et Dalila, and, perhaps most famous of all, The Carnival of The Animals. Saint-Saëns was also one of the most renowned pianists and organists of his day – Hector Berlioz called him “an absolutely shattering master pianist.” A musical prodigy, Saint-Saëns started piano lessons at age two, composed his first music a year later, played his first full-length concert as a pianist at ten (where he offered as an encore to play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory), and entered the Paris Conservatoire at thirteen. From 1853 to 1876 he held a number of church organist posts, and taught for four years at the École Niedermeyer. As he continued his busy musical career, composing and touring as a famous piano virtuoso, he was also able to pursue a variety of non-musical interests: he spoke several languages, was an amateur astronomer and archaeologist, and wrote poetry, plays, and popular travel books.
“The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals
Duration: 3 minutes
After a concert tour that didn’t go well, in early 1886 Saint-Saëns settled for a time in a small Austrian village. He was supposed to be finishing his “Organ” Symphony No. 3, but found more fun in creating the lighthearted and humorous “zoological fantasy” Carnival of the Animals. However, because he had a keen desire to be recognized as a composer of serious, substantial music, shortly after his Carnival was premiered at a few private concerts, Saint-Saëns banned further public performances of it, and refused to have it published until after his death. Only in 1922 did it receive its first public performance, and now Carnival of the Animals is one of Saint-Saëns’s best-loved works. The vividness with which he evokes the lion’s roar, the hen’s crowing, the kangaroo’s leap, the mule’s bray, and the flights and songs of birds are sometimes supplemented by humorous verses by American poet Ogden Nash.
The one exception he made to his lifetime ban on performances and publication was for “The Swan,” which was published in an arrangement for cello and piano in 1887. The elegant cello melody is said to represent the swan gliding gracefully along the water’s surface, and the rolled chords and rippling motion of the piano both the water’s movement and the swan’s feet propelling it below.