Music Essays – Camille Saint-Saens

SAINT- SAENS had the rare honor of becoming a classic during his lifetime. His name, though it was long unrecognized, now commands universal respect. No artist had troubled so little about the public or had been more indifferent to criticism whether popular or expert. As a child he had almost a physical revulsion for outward success:

“De l’applaudissement

J’entends encor le bruit qui, chose assez etrange, Pour ma pudeur d’enfant était comme une fange Dont le flot me venait toucher; je redoutais Son contact, et parfois, malin, je l’évitais, Affectant la raideur.”

Later on, he achieved success by a long and painful struggle in which he had to fight against the kind of stupid criticism that condemned him “to listen to one of Beethoven’s symphonies as a penance likely to give him the most excruciating torture.” And yet after this, and after his admission to the Academy, after Henry VIII and the Symphonie avec orgue, he still remained aloof from praise or blame and judged his triumphs with sad severity:

“Tu connaitras les yeux menteurs, l’hypocrisie Des serrements de mains, Le masque d’amitié cachant la jalousie, Les piles lendemains “De ces jours de triomphe ou le troupeau vulgaire Qui pese au meme poids L’histrion ridicule et le génie austere Vous mets sur le pavois.”

Saint-Saëns grew old, and his fame spread abroad, but he had not capitulated. He wrote to a German journalist: “I take very little notice of either praise or censure, not because I have an exalted idea of my own merits (which would be foolish) but because in doing my work and fulfilling the function of my nature, as an apple tree grows apples, I have no need to trouble myself with other people’s views.”

Such independence is rare at any time, and it is rarest of all in France, where artists are perhaps more sociable than in other countries. Of all qualities in an artist it is the most precious; for it forms the foundation of his character and is the guarantee of his conscience and innate strength. So we must not hide it under a bushel.

The significance of Saint-Saëns in art is a double one, for one must judge him from the inside as well as the outside of France. He stands for something exceptional in French music, some-thing which was almost unique until lately: that is, a great classical spirit and a fine breadth of musical culture—German culture, we must say, since the foundation of all modem art rests on the German classics. French music of the nineteenth century is rich in clever artists, imaginative writers of melody, and skillful dramatists; but it is poor in true musicians and in good and solid workmanship. Apart from two or three splendid exceptions, our composers have too much the character of gifted amateurs who compose music as a pastime and regard it not as a. special form of thought but as a sort of dress for literary ideas. Our musical education is superficial: it may be got for a few years in a formal way at a conservatory, but it is not within the reach of all; the child does not breathe music as, in a way, he breathes the atmosphere of literature and oratory; and although nearly everyone in France has an instinctive feeling for beautiful writing, only a very few people care for beautiful music. From this arise the common faults and failings in our music. It has remained a luxurious art; it has not become, like German music, the poetical expression of the people’s thought.

To bring this about we should need a combination of conditions that are very rare in France, though such conditions went to the making of Camille Saint-Saëns. He had not only re; markable natural talent but came of a family of ardent musicians, who devoted themselves to his education. At five years of age he was nourished on the orchestral score of Don Juan; as a little boy

“De dix ans, delicat, frele, le teint jaunt, Mais confiant, nail, plein d’ardeur et de joie,”

he “measured himself against Beethoven and Mozart” by playing in a public concert; at sixteen years of age he wrote his First Symphony. As he grew older he soaked himself in the music of Bach and Handel and was able to compose at will after the manner of Rossini, Verdi, Schumann, and Wagner. He wrote excellent music in all styles—the Grecian style and that of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. His compositions were of every kind: masses, grand operas, light operas, cantatas, symphonies, symphonic poems; music for the orchestra, the organ, the piano, the voice, and chamber music. He was the learned editor of Gluck and Rameau and was thus not only an artist but an artist who could talk about his art. He was an unusual figure in France—one would have thought rather to. find his home in Germany.

In Germany, however, while he was alive, they made no. mistake about him. There the name of Camille Saint-Saëns stood for the French classical spirit and was thought worthiest to represent us in music from the time of Berlioz until the appearance of the young school of César Franck. Saint-Saëns possessed, indeed, some of the best qualities of a French artist, and among them the most important quality of all—perfect clearness of conception. It is remarkable how little this learned artist was bothered by his learning and how free he was from all pedantry. Pedantry is the plague of German art, and the greatest men have not escaped it. I am not speaking of Brahms, who was ravaged with it, but of delightful geniuses like Schumann, or of powerful ones like Bach. “This unnatural art wearies one like the sanctimonious salon of some little provincial town; it stifles one; it is enough to kill one. Saint-Saëns is not a pedant,” wrote Gounod; “he has remained too much of a child and become too clever for that.” Besides, he had always been too much of a Frenchman.

Sometimes Saint-Saëns reminds me of one of our eighteenth-century writers. Not a writer of the Encyclopédie, nor one of Rousseau’s camp, but rather of Voltaire’s school. He had a clarity of thought, an elegance and precision of expression, and a quality of mind that made his music “not only noble, but very noble, as coming of a fine race and distinguished family.”

He had also excellent discernment, of an unemotional kind; and he was “calm in spirit, restrained in imagination, and keeps his self-control even in the midst of the most disturbing emotions.” This discernment is the enemy of anything approaching obscurity of thought or mysticism; and its outcome was that curious book, Problèmes et mystères-a misleading title, for the spirit of reason reigns there and makes an appeal to young people to protect “the light of a menaced world” against “the mists of the North, Scandinavian gods, Indian divinities, Catholic miracles, Lourdes, spiritualism, occultism, and obscurantism.

His love and need of liberty was also of the eighteenth century. One may say that liberty was his only passion. “I am passionately fond of liberty,” he wrote. And he proved it by the absolute fearlessness of his judgments on art; for not only had he reasoned soundly against Wagner but dared to criticize the weaknesses of Gluck and Mozart, the errors of Weber and Berlioz, and the accepted opinions about Gounod; and this classicist, who was nourished on Bach, went so far as to say: “The performance of works by Bach and Handel today is an idle amusement,” and that those who wish to revive their art are like “people who would live in an old mansion that has been uninhabited for centuries.” He went even further; he criticized his own work and contradicted his own opinions. His love of liberty made him form, at different periods, different opinions of the same work. He thought that people had a right to change their -opinions, as sometimes they deceived themselves. It seemed to him better to admit an error boldly than to be the slave of consistency. And this same feeling showed itself in other matters besides art: in ethics, as is shown by some verses which he addressed to a young friend, urging him not to be bound by a too rigid austerity:

“le sens qu’une triste chimere A toujours assombri ton dine: la Vertu …”

and in metaphysics also, where he judges religions, faith, and the Gospels with a quiet freedom of thought, seeking in Nature alone the basis of morals and society.

Here are some of his opinions, taken at random from Problames et mysteres:

“As science advances, God recedes.”

“The soul is only a medium for the expression of thought.”

“The discouragement of work, the weakening of character, the sharing of one’s goods under pain of death—this is the Gospel teaching on the foundation of society.”

“The Christian virtues are not social virtues.”

“Nature is without aim: she is an endless circle and leads us nowhere.”

His thoughts were unfettered and full of love for humanity and a sense of the responsibility of the individual. He called Beethoven “the greatest, the only really great artist,” because he upheld the idea of universal brotherhood. His mind was so comprehensive that he wrote books on philosophy, on the theater, on classical painting, as well as scientific essays, volumes of verse, and even plays. He was able to take up all sorts of things, I will not say with equal skill, but with discernment and undeniable ability, He shows a type of mind rare among artists and, above all, among musicians. The two principles that he enunciated and himself followed out are: “Keep free from all exaggeration” and “Preserve the soundness of your mind’s health.” They are certainly not the principles of a Beethoven or a Wagner, and it would be rather difficult to find a noted musician of the past century who had applied them. They tell us, without need of comment, what was distinctive about Saint-Saëns and what was defective in him. He was not troubled by any sort of passion. Nothing disturbed the clearness of his reason. “He has no prejudices; he takes no side”—one might add, not even his own, since he was not afraid to change his views. “He does not pose as a reformer of anything”; he was altogether independent, perhaps almost too much so. He seems sometimes as if he did not know what to do with his liberty. Goethe would have said, I think, that he needed a little more of the devil in him.

His most characteristic mental trait seemed to be a languid melancholy, which had its source in a rather bitter feeling of the futility of life; and this was accompanied by fits of weariness which were not altogether healthy, followed by capricious moods and nervous gaiety, and a freakish liking for burlesque and mimicry. It was his eager, restless spirit that made him rush about the world writing Breton and Auvergnian rhapsodies, Persian songs, Algerian suites, Portuguese barcarolles, Danish, Russian, or Arabian caprices, souvenirs of Italy, African fantasias, and Egyptian concertos; and, in the same way, he roamed through the ages, writing Greek tragedies, dance music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and preludes and fugues of the eighteenth. But in all these exotic and archaic reflections of times and countries through which his fancy wandered, one recognizes the gay, intelligent countenance of a Frenchman on his travels who idly follows his inclinations and does not trouble to enter very deeply into the spirit of the people he meets but gleans all he can and then reproduces it with a French complexion—after the manner of Montaigne in Italy, who compared Verona to Poitiers, and Padua to Bordeaux, and who, when he was in ‘Florence, paid much less attention to Michelangelo than to “a strangely shaped sheep, and an animal the size of a large mastiff, shaped like a cat and striped with black and white, which they called a tiger.”

From a purely musical point of view there is some resemblance between Saint-Saens and Mendelssohn. In both of them we find the same intellectual restraint, the same balance pre-served among the heterogeneous elements of their work. These elements are not common to both of them because the time, the country, and the surroundings in which they lived are not the same; and there is also a great difference in their characters. Mendelssohn is more ingenuous and religious; Saint-Saens is more of a dilettante and more sensuous. They are not so much kindred spirits by their science as good company by a common purity of taste, a sense of rhythm, and a genius for method, which gave all they wrote a neo-classic character.

As for the things that directly influenced Saint-Saens, they are so numerous that it would be difficult and rather bold of me to pretend to be able to pick them out. His remarkable capacity for assimilation had often moved him to write in the style of Wagner or Berlioz, of Handel or Rameau, of Lully or Charpentier, or even of some English harpsichord or clavichord player of the sixteenth century, like William Byrd-whose airs are introduced quite naturally in the music of Henry VIII; but we must remember that these are deliberate imitations, the amusements of a virtuoso, about which Saint-Saens never deceived himself. His memory served him as he pleased, but he was never troubled by it.

As far as one can judge, Saint-Saens’ musical ideas were in-fused with the spirit of the great classics belonging to the end of the eighteenth century—far more, whatever people may say, with the spirit of Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart than with the spirit of Bach. Schumann’s seductiveness also left its mark upon him, and he has felt the influence of Gounod, Bizet, and Wagner. But a stronger influence was that of Berlioz, his friend and master, and, above all, that of Liszt. We must stop at this last name.

Saint-Saëns had good reason for liking Liszt, for Liszt was also a lover of freedom and had shaken off traditions and pedantry and scorned German routine; and Saint-Saëns liked him, too, because his music was a reaction from the stiff school of Brahms. He was enthusiastic about Liszt’s work and was one of the earliest and most ardent champions of that new music of which Liszt was the leading spirit—of that “program” music which Wagner’s triumph seemed to have nipped in the bud but which suddenly and gloriously burst into life again in the works of Richard Strauss. “Liszt is one of the great composers of our time,” wrote Saint-Saëns; “he has dared more than either Weber, or Mendelssohn, or Schubert, or Schumann. He has created the symphonic poem. He is the deliverer of instrumental music. . . . He has proclaimed the reign of free music.” This was not said impulsively in a moment of enthusiasm; Saint-Saens had always held this opinion. All his life he had remained faithful to his admiration of Liszt-since 1858, when he dedicated a Veni Creator to “the Abbé Liszt,” until 1886, when, a few months after Liszt’s death, he dedicated his masterpiece, the Symphonie avec orgue, “To the memory of Franz Liszt’ -“People have not hesitated to scoff at what they call my weakness for Liszt’s works. But even if the feelings of affection and gratitude that he inspired in me did come like a prism and interpose themselves between my eyes and his face, I do not see anything greatly to be regretted in it. I had not yet felt the charm of his personal fascination, I had neither heard nor seen him, and I did not owe him anything at all when my interest was gripped in reading his first symphonic poems; and when later they pointed the way which was to lead to the Danse macabre, Le Rouet d’Omphale and other works of the same nature, I am sure that my judgment was not biased by any prejudice in his favor, and that I alone was responsible for what I did.”

This influence seems to me to explain some of Saint-Saens’ work. Not only is this influence evident in his symphonic poems —some of his best work—but it is to be found in his suites for orchestra, his fantasias, and his rhapsodies, where the descriptive and narrative element is strong. “Music should charm unaided,” said Saint-Saens; “but its effect is much finer when we use our imagination and let it flow in some particular channel, thus imagining the music. It is then that all the faculties of the soul are brought into play for the same end. What art gains from this is not greater beauty but a wider field for its scope—that is, a greater variety of form and a larger liberty.”

And so we find that Saint-Saens had taken part in the vigorous attempt of modern German symphony writers to bring into music some of the power of the other arts: poetry, painting, philosophy, romance, drama—the whole of life. But what a gulf divided them and him! A gulf made up not only of diversities of style but of the difference between two races and two worlds. Beside the frenzied outpourings of Richard Strauss, who flounders uncertainly between mud and debris and genius, the Latin art of Saint-Saens rises up calm and ironical. His delicacy of touch, his careful moderation, his happy grace, “which enters the soul by a thousand little paths,” bring with them the pleasures of beautiful speech and honest thought; and we cannot but feel their charm. Compared with the restless and troubled art of today, his music strikes us by its calm, its tranquil harmonies, its velvety modulations, its crystal clearness, its smooth and flowing style, and an elegance that cannot be put into words. Even his classic coldness does us good by its reaction against the exaggerations, sincere as they are, of the new school. At times one feels oneself carried back to Mendelssohn, even to Spontini and the school of Gluck. One seems to be traveling in a country that one knows and loves; and yet in Saint-Saens’ works one does not find any direct resemblance to the works of other composers; for with no one are reminiscences rarer than with this master who carried all the old masters in his mind—it is his spirit that is akin to theirs. And that is the secret of his personality and his value to us; he brings to our artistic unrest a little of the light and sweetness of other times. His compositions are like fragments of another world.

“From time to time,” he said, in speaking of Don Giovanni, “in the sacred earth of Hellene we find a fragment, an arm, the debris of a torso, scratched and damaged by the ravages of time; it is only the shadow of the god that the sculptor’s chisel once created; but the charm is somehow still there, the sublime style is radiant in spite of everything.”

And so with this music. It is sometimes a little pale, a little too restrained; but in a phrase, in a few harmonies, there will shine out a clear vision of the past.