Camille Saint-Saens was born in Paris and brought up by his
mother. He began music lessons early and by the age of three had
already composed his first piano piece. From the age of seven he
took composition lessons and soon gained a reputation in Paris as
a child prodigy. In 1846, aged 11, he gave a recital of Mozart and
Beethoven piano concertos; for an encore he offered to play any one of the Beethoven piano sonatas from
He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1848 and over the next
five years his dazzling gifts won both the friendship and
patronage of composers such as Rossini, Gounod, Liszt, and
Berlioz. His mentors feared only that his chameleon-like ability
to absorb information and musical styles, while in one sense an advantage, might inhibit originality of
expression in his own compositions.
The 1860s were probably the most contented and stable years of
Saint-Saens's life. During this time he quickly acquired a
formidable reputation as a composer and a virtuoso pianist. In
1868 his Piano concerto No. 2, written m just 17 days,
received warm praise from Liszt. He went on to produce a total of
five concertos for piano, ranging in mood from the graceful,
capricious, and lyrical, to the heroic and, in the case of No.
4 — untypically for Saint-Saens - the tragic.
At the Ecole Niedermeyer between 1861 and 1865, in Samt-Saens's
only professional teaching appointment, his pupils included the
composer Gabriel Faure, who became a close friend. In 1871 Saint-Saens
co-founded the Societe Nationale de Musique, an institution
designed to promote the works of French composers. The Societe
gave important premieres of works by Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saens
himself, and many others. In 1875 he married a young woman half
his age, but the union lasted less than six years, probably due in
part to Saint-Saens's highly-strung temperament and the couple's
frustrated desire to start a family (two children died in
The 1870s and 1880s saw the composition of some of Saint-Saens's
best and most characteristic works, including the opera Samson
et Dalila (1 877), the Symphony No. 3 ("The organ"),
and in 1886 Le carnaval des animals (The carnival of the
animals). The last consists of musical portraits of various
animals — including such species as "Fossils" and "Pianists",
among the more conventional animals, such as the famous "Swan"
music for cello. The carnival of the animals was written as
a private joke: Saint-Saens did not allow a performance during his
lifetime. It is ironic that this piece more than any other has
secured his fame in the present day.
Saint-Saens spent his final years travelling in Europe and the
United States. On his death in 1921 he left a body of music that
revealed a passion for order, clarity, and precision, as well as
an always attractive - and very French - melodic charm.