Camille Saint-Saëns

Tchaikovsky Research
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

French composer, pianist, organist and conductor (b. 9 October 1835 in [N.S.]Paris; d. 16 December 1921 in Algiers), born Charles Camille Saint-Saëns.

Saint-Saëns' musical aptitude was apparent from a very early age, and he gave his first piano recital in Paris at the age of ten. He enrolled at the city's conservatory in 1848, gaining first prize for organ three years later, when he began lessons in composition with J. F. Halévy (1799–1862). After his graduation he held various positions as an organist, while continuing to compose.

Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns

Tchaikovsky first encountered Saint-Saëns during the Frenchman's concert tour to Moscow in November 1875, and the two composers struck up an immediate rapport. Apart from his musical mastery and "ability to combine the grace and elegance of the French school with the seriousness and depth of the great German composers", what Tchaikovsky found so appealing about Saint-Saëns was his briskness, wit, and originality [1]. In his biography of Tchaikovsky, the composer's brother Modest also recounted the following amusing anecdote which took place during that first visit by Saint-Saëns to Russia:

It turned out that the two new friends had many likes and dislikes in common, both in the sphere of music and in the other arts, too. In particular, not only had they both been enthusiastic about ballet in their youth, but they were also able to pull off splendid imitations of ballerinas. And so on one occasion at the Conservatory [in Moscow], seeking to flaunt their artistry before one another, they performed a whole short ballet on the stage of the Conservatory's auditorium: Galatea and Pygmalion. The 40-year-old Saint-Saëns was Galatea and interpreted, with exceptional conscientiousness, the role of a statue, whilst the 35-year-old Tchaikovsky took on the role of Pygmalion. N. G. Rubinstein stood in for the orchestra. Unfortunately, apart from the three performers no one else was present in the auditorium during this curious production" [2].

It seems that Saint-Saëns also suggested to his Russian colleague that he ought to present himself in Paris with a concert drawn up exclusively from his own works, and this was an idea which Tchaikovsky would later take up. Similarly, Saint-Saëns discussed the possibility of organizing the first performance of the overture-fantasia Romeo and Juliet in France, for in a letter which Modest wrote to his brother from Lyons in March 1876 he told Tchaikovsky that he had happened to meet Saint-Saëns at a concert there and had asked him if he could say anything specific about when this performance of Romeo and Juliet might take place: "He [Saint-Saëns] was very kind, recognized me immediately, told me that he had received your letter and photograph [letter 441a], and said that he really did not know when Romeo would be performed, but promised that he would write to you as soon as he had made enquiries. He referred to you as "ce cher Tchaïkovsky" all the time" [3]. Tchaikovsky's reply to his brother shows something of that touchiness which would mark his attitude to foreign colleagues for quite a long time (until the second half of the 1880s, when his reputation was at last firmly established in Western Europe):

Your letter gladdened me very much, but it did anger me somewhat that you asked Saint-Saëns when my overture is going to be played. I mean, he might get the impression that I am dying to see myself performed in Paris. Granted, that may indeed be the case, but Saint-Saëns must on no account find out that it is so" [4].

We find the same touchiness at work in Tchaikovsky's letter to Karl Albrecht early in 1878 (letter 720 quoted in the list below) in which he explained why he did not want to act as a delegate for Russian music at the World Fair in Paris that summer. The thought that he would be treated condescendingly by French colleagues to whom he felt immeasurably superior was too much for him to bear! It is interesting that Tchaikovsky singles out Saint-Saëns amongst the Parisian "celebrities" in this letter and observes that he considered himself to be "a whole Alpine mountain higher" than his elder contemporary in terms of talent. Certainly, another letter included below indicates that he rated Bizet and Delibes higher than Saint-Saëns.

Nevertheless, it does seem that thanks to Saint-Saëns' initiative the Romeo and Juliet overture was finally performed in Paris at one of the popular concerts conducted by Jules Pasdeloup in December 1876. Sergey Taneyev, who was then staying in the French capital, reported on this to his former teacher and also added: "At Saint-Saëns' house I played your concerto, which went down very well with everyone. On the whole the musicians here are very interested in your works" [5]. In his reply to Taneyev, Tchaikovsky now took up the suggestion which Saint-Saëns had made during his visit to Moscow in 1875:

Last year Saint-Saëns advised me to give a concert in Paris with a programme drawn exclusively from my own compositions. He told me that one could organize this at the Châtelet with Colonne's orchestra and that it is not particularly expensive. Now I have seized on this idea and would like to carry it out. Would you be so kind, my friend, as to call on M-r Camille de Saint-Saëns and discuss this in detail with him: 1) does he still recommend me to give a concert?; 2) how much approximately will this treat cost me?; 3) when is the best time to do this? I am even prepared to conduct the concert myself. This will seem odd to you, but the point is that I can bring myself to do this precisely because it would be in Paris and not Moscow, where people know me too well and where the opinion has become far too deeply ingrained that I am not cut out to be a conductor" [6].

In this letter, Tchaikovsky also listed the works which he thought would be suitable for performance in Paris — the Romeo and Juliet overture, the Andante cantabile from String Quartet No. 1 (arranged for string orchestra), Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Taneyev as the potential soloist), The Tempest, the Finale from the Second Symphony, dances from The Oprichnik, and a number of songs (which the composer hoped Pauline Viardot might agree to perform!) — and concluded that even if he was being unrealistic: "But still I kindly ask you to take my request to heart and have a thorough discussion with Saint-Saëns. If he says yes and if I have the chance to get hold of enough money, then I will immediately enter into direct negotiations with Colonne" [7]. Tchaikovsky was certainly not building castles in the air, since all the signals he received from Paris were positive. Thus, Taneyev replied to Tchaikovsky a few days later, saying that he had just seen Saint-Saëns and that "he recommends you to give a concert now more than ever before", since the Romeo and Juliet overture had made a very favourable impression, especially on the orchestra musicians who had played it at Pasdeloup's concert [8]. Tchaikovsky in his turn wrote to his former pupil that he had just sent off a letter to Édouard Colonne and that he was confident of being able to raise the required 1,000 rubles: "I am amazed by how cheap it is to hire the orchestra and venue, and I am very happy that Saint-Saëns is encouraging me to give a concert" [9]. Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky was ultimately unable to raise that sum and the concert in Paris in 1877 on which he had placed considerable hopes did not come off. It would still be a few years before he was properly recognized in France as one of Europe's leading composers.

On 13 June 1886 [N.S.], during his one-month stay in Paris that summer, Tchaikovsky, together with the cellist Anatoly Brandukov, went to call on Saint-Saëns, but the latter was not in [10]. Tchaikovsky left his visiting-card, but unfortunately the Frenchman did not receive it until his colleague had already left for Russia. Once he was back in Maydanovo, Tchaikovsky received a letter of apology in which Saint-Saëns explained that letters and visiting-cards sent to him sometimes disappeared for a few days because his aged mother often mislaid them. He closed off his apology with the following assurance: "Whenever appearances are against me, I ask you not to believe them. You shall always find in me a devoted and reliable friend — never forget this!" [11]. Later that year a diary entry shows that Tchaikovsky and Herman Laroche, who was a frequent guest at Maydanovo, played through Saint-Saëns' unusually scored Septet, Op.65 [12].

In the spring of 1887, Saint-Saëns came to Russia for a second time and was made an honorary member of the Saint Petersburg branch of the Russian Musical Society. During his stay in the northern capital he also attended a performance of Yevgeny Onegin at the Mariinsky Theatre, and an entry for 12/24 April 1887 in the log-book of Gennady Kondratyev, the chief director of the Imperial Theatres, records the impression it made on the distinguished guest from France: "Saint-Saëns, as well as the soloists and professors from the Paris Conservatoire who had come with him, heard the opera [Onegin] and went into raptures over it" [13]. On 18/30 April and 19 April/1 May, Saint-Saëns was also due to give two concerts in Moscow and he wrote to Tchaikovsky (who was then in Maydanovo), asking if he would be able to attend these. Tchaikovsky replied saying that unfortunately he did not feel well enough to make the journey into Moscow, but the real reason for his decision not to attend these concerts, as he explained in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck, was that he knew beforehand that the audience numbers would be very low and he felt so sorry for Saint-Saëns that he preferred not to have to witness this humiliation of an esteemed colleague [14].

After 1875 the two composers did not in fact meet again until the summer of 1893 when they both arrived in England to collect their honorary doctorates in music from the University of Cambridge. A few days before the degree ceremony there, a Philharmonic Society concert was held at the St. James's Hall in London on 1 June 1893 [N.S.] at which Tchaikovsky conducted the first performance in England of his Fourth Symphony. Saint-Saëns was also due to perform in the second half of this concert, and in a letter to his brother Modest (quoted below) Tchaikovsky noted how the triumphant success of his symphony had made the Frenchman feel rather awkward about stepping onto the concert podium immediately afterwards. It seems that the tables were now turned increasingly in Tchaikovsky's favour, as far as international acclaim was concerned!

Still, the honours conferred on them by the University of Cambridge (as well as on Arrigo Boito and Max Bruch) were the same, and the concert held in the Cambridge Guildhall on 12 June 1893 [N.S.] featured a work by each of these composers. On that occasion Tchaikovsky conducted the first performance in England of Francesca da Rimini, whilst Saint-Saëns played the piano part in his own orchestral fantasia Afrique, Op.89, which he had recently completed in Cairo. In his collection of essays Portraits et souvenirs (1900), Saint-Saëns looked back on this concert in Cambridge and gave his impressions of Francesca da Rimini, noting how this work literally bristled with difficulties and violent effects: "[Tchaikovsky], the gentlest and most affable of men here gave free rein to a frenzied storm and showed no more clemency towards the musicians and his listeners than Satan towards the sinners in hell." However, the long melodic phrase evoking Francesca and Paolo's love "reigned supreme over this infernal storm" and, although in his view Liszt's Dante symphony was more moving and genuinely Italian in character, Tchaikovsky's fantasia was the more musically perfect: "Indeed, both these works can live peacefully alongside one another — they are both worthy of Dante's original poem" [15].

On 6/18 October 1893, the day before he left Klin for the last time, Tchaikovsky went through Saint-Saëns' famous Cello Concerto No. 1 with the cellists Brandukov and Yulian Poplavsky who had both come to visit him. The reason for this was that Brandukov was due to play the concerto in Saint Petersburg, with Tchaikovsky himself conducting [16]. The composer's death meant that this concert could not ultimately take place.

Saint-Saëns was greatly saddened by the news of Tchaikovsky's death and he wrote a letter to the Russian Embassy in Paris shortly afterwards: "I would be much obliged to you if you could let people in Russia know the extent to which I share in the grief felt by the friends of the great composer whose talent I admire enormously and towards whom I had been bound by friendship for a long time — a friendship which increased further this summer in England, where I had the good fortune to meet him and spend a few days in his company. His death is a great loss for the art of music, since he had many years of creative work ahead of him, perhaps even his finest years" [17].

General Reflections on Saint-Saëns

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • TH 312 — Tchaikovsky refers to Saint-Saëns' prominent position amongst the avant-garde French composers; gives an outline of his biography, stressing his achievement in familiarising his countrymen with the German school of music; argues that the finest traits of the French national character ("sincerity, enthusiasm, cordiality, intelligence") were reflected in Saint-Saëns' music; mentions the latter's veneration of Bach and how he sometimes paid tribute to him in his works; and praises the Danse macabre enthusiastically.
  • TH 313 — describes Saint-Saëns' originality in terms of his "extremely felicitous fusion of the manner of Johann Sebastian Bach with national French elements"; praises the novel harmonic devices and instrumentation deployed by the Frenchman; and notes how Saint-Saëns had been deeply moved by the Russian public's enthusiastic response to his concerts.

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

"As for significant things that have happened, I can tell you that I have become great friends with Saint-Saëns, a splendid and intelligent Frenchman, who may be able to do me some important favours with regard to propagating my fame in Paris."
  • Letter 720 to Karl Albrecht, 8/20 January 1878, in which Tchaikovsky explains why he felt that he had taken the right decision in refusing to represent Russia at the World Fair in Paris that summer, pointing out that he lacked sufficient experience as a conductor to be able to present the works of his fellow-countrymen adequately, and that the chance to make himself well known in Paris did not appeal to him:
"…As for getting to know the musical world of Paris, precisely that would be the most terrible thing for me. Having to pay compliments and suck up to all kinds of riff-raff — that is what is so loathsome to my character. Pride manifests itself in people in different ways. In my case it manifests itself in the way that I avoid coming into contact with people who do not recognize my merits or who are unaware of them. It would be unbearable for me to have to stand humbly in front of Saint-Saëns, say, and sense his patronizing glance directed at me when in my heart of hearts I consider myself to be a whole Alpine mountain higher than him. In Paris my self-esteem (which, in spite of my apparent modesty, is huge) would suffer terribly all the time precisely due to the need to meet various celebrities who would treat me condescendingly. As for foisting my works on them, creeping up to these people and trying to convince them of my worth — that is something which I am incapable of…"
"Massenet I rate lower than Bizet, Delibes, and even Saint-Saëns, but in his [Massenet's] music, too, as is the case with all contemporary French composers, one finds that element of freshness which the Germans lack."
"…And that, my dear friend, is why I do not call on Turgenev or anyone else for that matter. I mean, there is no shortage of people here whom I could go to see! Saint-Saëns, for example, who during his stay in Moscow [in 1875] made me promise that I would visit him whenever I found myself in Paris. Anyone else in my place would have made sure to acquaint myself with all the local musicians and composers. And it really is a pity that I cannot bring myself to do this: I am losing out on a lot due to my unsociability."
"I haven't yet heard Saint-Saëns' Henri VIII, which was staged at the Grand Opéra a few days ago. Judging from the newspaper reviews, it is clear that the opera was a real success. That's something I hadn't expected, since I know his other operas well — Samson et Dalila, Étienne Marcel, and La princesse jaune — and all these three operas left me convinced that Saint-Saëns would hardly be able to create anything significant in the realm of dramatic music. Next week I will go and listen to his opera, and I shall let you know about my impressions"
"I still haven't been able to see Saint-Saëns' new opera [Henri VIII], which was finally put on this week after many months of expectation. All Paris is now talking about this production. It was a great success. Saint-Saëns has received 60,000 francs from his publisher. Yes, the good fortune of being born a Frenchman! I feel, I know that my Mazepa is much better than Saint-Saëns, and yet my opera won't be produced anywhere beyond the miserable stage of the Mariinsky Theatre and what I'll get for it is mere small change."
"The concert went splendidly, i.e. the unanimous opinion of everyone was that I achieved a veritable triumph, and so Saint-Saëns, who had to make his appearance right after mine, suffered somewhat as a result of my extraordinary success. That is, of course, agreeable, but still what a torment life here is at the height of the season! My diary is already filled up entirely with invitations to luncheons and dinners, and the Englishmen do spend an incredible amount of time on these things. Yesterday the directors [of the Philharmonic Society] organized a banquet for me and Saint-Saëns at the Westminster Club. An amazingly stylish and luxurious place, but just imagine: we sat down to eat at 7 and didn't get up until 11.30 (I'm not exaggerating!)"

Views on Specific Works by Saint-Saëns

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • Danse macabre, symphonic poem, Op.40 (1872) — TH 312
  • Le Rouet d'Omphale, symphonic poem, Op.31 (1871) — TH 313
  • Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op.22 (1868) — TH 312
  • Piano Concerto No. 3 in E♭ major, Op.28 (1869) — TH 313
  • Piano Quartet in B♭ major, Op.41 (1875) — TH 313
  • Variations sur un thème de Beethoven, Op.35 (1874) — TH 313

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

"I have just been playing through Étienne Marcel. All one can say about this opera is that it is a completely insignificant, even undistinguished work. It's banal, dry, boring, shameless, and without any character. I have the impression that Saint-Saëns was seeking to ingratiate himself with the public by means of a deliberate simplicity, but not everything that is simple is good. What can be simpler than Don Giovanni or A Life for the Tsar?! But the point is that these operas are not merely simple, but also astonishingly good because so much inspiration and creativity of genius has gone into them. We find neither the one nor the other in Saint-Saëns: he just has skill, knowledge, and taste. These three qualities are sufficient for those small symphonic paintings of his, some of which really have come out very well, but for an opera he just didn't have enough material. What is particularly striking is the melodic poverty of this work"

Correspondence with Tchaikovsky

4 letters from Tchaikovsky to Camille Saint-Saëns have survived, dating from 1876 to 1887, all of which have been translated into English on this website:

2 letters from Saint-Saëns to Tchaikovsky, dating from around 1886 to 1887, are preserved in the Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin (a4, Nos. 4000–4001).


External Links

Notes and References

  1. See Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 446.
  2. Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 447.
  3. Letter from Modest Tchaikovsky to the composer, 14/26 March 1876. Quoted in П. И. Чайковский. Письма к близким. Избранное (1955), p. 575.
  4. Letter 457 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 24 March/5 April 1876.
  5. Letter from Sergey Taneyev to Tchaikovsky, 28 November/10 December 1876, included in П. И. Чайковский. С. И. Танеев. Письма (1951), p. 9–10.
  6. Letter 518 to Sergey Taneyev, 5/17 December 1876.
  7. Letter 518 to Sergey Taneyev, 5/17 December 1876.
  8. Letter from Sergey Taneyev to Tchaikovsky, 16/28 December 1876, included in П. И. Чайковский. С. И. Танеев. Письма (1951), p. 14.
  9. Letter 528 to Sergey Taneyev, 25 December 1876/6 January 1877.
  10. Diary entry for 1/13 June 1886, in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 65.
  11. Letter from Camille Saint-Saëns to Tchaikovsky, 20 or 21 June 1886 [N.S.], included in Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 170 and p. 217 (in the original French).
  12. Diary entry for 7/19 October 1886, in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 101.
  13. Quoted in Дни и годы П. И. Чайковского. Летопись жизни и творчества (1940), p. 606.
  14. See Letter 3227 to Camille Saint-Saëns, 18/30 April 1887 and Letter 3239 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 April/6 May 1887. Tchaikovsky does not explain in his letter to her why he was so sure that these concerts would draw but a small audience.
  15. Saint-Saëns' reflections are quoted at length in Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 3 (1997), p. 550.
  16. See Последний день П. И. Чайковского в Клину (1980), p. 321.
  17. Quoted in Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 170.