French composer, pianist, organist and conductor (b. 9 October 1835 in 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 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 . 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 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" . 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):
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's 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's house I played your concerto [Piano Concerto No. 1], which went down very well with everyone. On the whole the musicians here are very interested in your works" . In his reply to Taneyev Tchaikovsky now took up the suggestion which Saint-Saëns had made during his visit to Moscow in 1875:
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" . 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 . 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" . 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 . 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!" . Later that year a diary entry shows that Tchaikovsky and Herman Laroche, who was a frequent guest at Maydanovo, played through Saint-Saëns's unusually scored Septet, Op.65 .
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" . 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 .
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 (letter 4940) 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" .
On 6/18 October 1893, the day before he left Klin for the last time, Tchaikovsky went through Saint-Saëns's 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 . 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" .
Tchaikovsky's general reflections on Camille Saint-Saëns:
In Tchaikovsky's music review articles:
In Tchaikovsky's letters:
Tchaikovsky's views on specific works by Camille Saint-Saëns:
In Tchaikovsky's music review articles:
In Tchaikovsky's letters:
Tchaikovsky's correspondence with Camille Saint-Saëns:
This page was last updated on 16 February 2013