A child prodigy, virtuoso pianist, and accomplished travel writer, the prolific French composer came to embody the spirit of Classicism in an era of high Romantic creativity. Yet the elegance and formality of his music never overwhelm the unstoppable verve and spontaneity that make it so irresistible. Saint-Saëns took pride in his family’s Normandy roots, but his father had moved to Paris before his birth and Camille was thoroughly Parisian in his upbringing and outlook. Delivering written compositions before he was four, he made a public appearance aged five, playing the piano part in a Beethoven violin sonata and by the age of ten, he was good enough to perform two concertos alongside several solo pieces in a legendary concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Study at the Conservatoire followed, then a solo career to go alongside his composing work. This was bolstered by organist posts at prestigious Paris churches where his awe-inspiring improvisation skills had the chance to flourish.
For a while in the 1860s, Saint-Saëns taught at the École Niedermeyer, an alternative to the Conservatoire that had more of an interest in early music, where the composers Gabriel Fauré and André Messager were among his students. He travelled widely and adventurously, frequently visiting Algeria and throughout his life was an intellectual omnivore, especially in the sciences, writing on a wide range of subjects, and maintaining a vigorous presence on the Paris musical scene. In 1871, he was the driving force behind the new Société Nationale de Musique, formed to promote instrumental music in the face both of German pre-eminence – this was the year after the Franco-Prussian War – and of the city’s obsession with opera. Although he became an opponent of Wagner’s influence and then of Debussy, among composers, he held the respect not only of Fauré, but of Maurice Ravel and the generation of composers led by Francis Poulenc that followed shortly.
Saint-Saëns was one of the great musicians of his time. His compositions were the fruit of an agile brain, finding unexpected colours in familiar instruments and treating standard musical forms in original ways. His qualities were at their sharpest in his five piano concertos, all vehicles for his nimble playing. Living on for half a century after he founded the Société Nationale, Saint-Saëns was able to witness the great flowering of French chamber music that took place during the period, led by his pupil Fauré. Saint-Saëns made major contributions of his own to the chamber repertoire, including sonatas for violin and for cello and a Septet featuring solo trumpet. Then, right at the end of his life, he began a series of woodwind sonatas. In their understanding of the instruments' capabilities, their compact forms and their focused expression are among his most perfect achievements.