Written by Lev Bratishenko
Camille Saint-Saëns is best known for Carnival of the Animals, a musical prank he never published, which hasn't stopped it from being taken seriously. Very seriously. Composer Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray was so appalled that cats were excluded from Saint-Saëns’s menagerie that he even rented a cheap apartment in a bad neighbourhood of Paris, but the street cats didn't sing and Bourgault-Ducoudray never corrected Carnival.
Here are some more anecdotes from Saint-Saëns’s long life. He started early, picking out notes on the piano at two years, and calling out "Mama, there is an orchestra in the kettle. Come listen to it!"* A piano prodigy, he accompanied violinists before he was five. He showed promise as a critic, too: his mother had to remove him from one concert, wailing, after the brass started to play and he yelled "They are stopping me from hearing the music."
Stories of his childhood describe a disciplined little striver taking walks holding a geologists hammer, leaving his Latin tutor in the dust, and passing through the French music conservatory system as quickly and pleasantly as a $0.99 slice of pizza. He was extremely gifted, he could play an entire opera at the piano after hearing it once, and he could be nice to his friends.
An explanation might be in the notes of his valet Paul Sabatie, who wrote that Saint-Saëns regularly used a “small electric device sending a light current from shoulder to fingers.” Was this the recharging mechanism for his mechanical limbs? He even wrote a cantata about electricity (Le feu céleste, in 1900) and asked if seats could be wired to give shocks to the audience. That’s still a good idea.
Yet he somehow had two sons with his wife Marie. The eldest, Andrew, was playing in their fourth-floor apartment one day when a maid, who had been cleaning, left a window open. The child climbed on the windowsill, fell, and died on the street. A distraught Marie left with Jean-François to stay with her mother in Reims, where the baby died of pneumonia in six weeks. Saint-Saëns cut her out of his life, but they never divorced. His work of those years shows no signs of distress.
He seems to have liked disappearing. Maybe he was looking for whoever had built him the fingers. Famous in France, he went to Spain in 1890, stopping to get caught stealing an orange from the gardens of the Alcazar, and went through Cadiz using the fake name "Charles Sannois," to arrive in the Canary Islands. There he drew suspicion by keeping to himself. When somebody saw him sketching the coastline, the police were called to arrest a spy. The French press were looking for him (his opera Ascanio was premiering in Paris) but he was only discovered when he helped pick up a child who had fallen in the street and a passer-by recognized his face from the newspaper. He wrote a friend that, "I had to employ violent means to escape."
Saint-Saëns had few interests besides music. He liked astronomy, and during the rehearsals for Samson et Dalila at the Opera in Paris, when he heard that Mount Etna had erupted, he left to watch. For a week.
When Saint-Saëns was supposed to travel to Chicago to perform at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, he complained that "if Christopher Columbus had been shipwrecked I would not be forced to practise scales."** But he was saved by the offer of an honorary degree in England. A much shorter trip, though with its own challenges: "Vous savez que je ne parle pas anglais, sauf avec les cabmen et les waiters."
Lastly but significantly, he was the first well-known composer to write for film, scoring L’Assasinat du Duc de Guise in 1908. Did he have something deeply in common with the new mechanism of cinema, perhaps?
* Brian Rees Saint-Saëns: A Life (Chatto & Windus, 1999), p. 35.
** Brian Rees Saint-Saëns: A Life (Chatto & Windus, 1999), p. 297.