While seldom ranked with the likes of Mozart and Beethoven as a "great" composer, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) stands high enough in the second tier to ensure lasting acclaim for his well-crafted, tuneful, and approachable works. Born in Paris in 1835 the son of a civil servant, Saint-Saëns had already shown extraordinary musical gifts by the age of three and was composing when he was six. He entered the Paris Conservatory in 1848 to study organ and composition, and after graduation in 1853, he began his professional career—like many of his French musical contemporaries—as an organist. After four years at the Church of Ste. Merri in Paris, Saint-Saëns became the titulaire at the prestigious Church of the Madeleine, where he served for 20 years (1857–1877).
Praised lavishly by Berlioz and strongly influenced by Franz Liszt, whom he met in 1852, Saint-Saëns quickly established himself in France as both a virtuoso pianist and a successful composer. By 1861, when he became professor of piano at the famous Niedermeyer School in Paris, he had already written several symphonies and the first of his five piano concertos. In 1868, Saint-Saëns began work on his best-known opera, Samson et Delila , followed by such familiar tone poems as Le Rouet D'Omphale ("Omphale's Spinning Wheel," 1872) and the Danse Macabre (1874). Other works familiar to today's concert-goers include his Symphony # 3 in C minor (with organ obbligato, 1886), the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and Havanaise—both for violin and orchestra (1863 and 1887)—and his Carnival of the Animals for two pianos and orchestra (1886).
By 1870, Saint-Saëns was in steady demand as a concert artist on both the piano and organ, and he concertized widely all over the world, eventually even visiting the United States in 1906 and 1916. A deeply-cultured man and an obsessive autodidact, he made a serious study of science and wrote books on philosophy, literature, painting, and theater. Indulging his passion for travel, he spent considerable time in the French colony of Algeria, where he was inspired to compose a number of works rooted in North African local color, such as his Suite Algérienne (1880) and his Africa fantasy for piano and orchestra (1891). Saint-Saëns died in Algeria in 1921, still firmly established as the "Grand Old Man" of French classical music.
From an early age, Saint-Saëns composed prolifically and seemingly without effort. "I produce music like an apple tree produces apples," he once said famously, and popular success came early and remained with him for his whole life. Perhaps for this reason, passion and struggle are relatively rare in his music. Instead, his works are characterized by their elegance, clarity, balance, formal structure, and straightforward beauty. They sound well. As a conservative musician in the 19th-century mold, Saint-Saëns was not one to plumb philosophical depths or to explore new musical territory. In a telling incident, he was so outraged at the first performance of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913 that he walked out of what was perhaps the most seminal event in the history of 20th-century music. Nonetheless, the best examples of his oeuvre remain beloved staples of the classical repertoire today.
During his long career, Saint-Saëns composed in virtually all the musical forms of his era, including opera, symphonic and chamber music, piano pieces, works for chorus and orchestra, and a small quantity of organ music still heard occasionally. In addition to his five concertos for piano and orchestra, he wrote three violin concertos and two for 'cello. Of the piano concertos, the best known is his Concerto # 2 in G minor (1868), which will be performed by the American Balalaika Symphony this season.