His times: In his lifetime, and for many years thereafter, Saint-Saëns was viewed as an upholder of tradition – an arch-conservative with an intense interest in music of the past (much of which, including Bach, he revived for the first time in France). In truth Saint-Saëns was a progressive man, who proved instrumental in dragging the French musical establishment forward: away from the light opera it was so obsessed with and onto song and chamber music. But as a world-famous musician in the 18th and early 19th centuries, Saint-Saëns wrote across the board: operas, concertos, symphonies and instrumental, vocal and chamber music.
His music: Though we tend to think of him as a musician of startling capacity for effect – the orchestral conjurer of the Carnival of the Animals and ‘Organ’ Symphony – Saint-Saëns was a man who thrived on chiseling away at musical detail and continuing to cultivate the French tradition of beauty and restraint. He was a craftsman who was entirely at home with the complexity of the standard Viennese models, but was able and willing to adopt fashionable Romantic tricks in his music. His melodies are often stern and formal, but his harmonies can be exotic and alluring, particularly in those pieces influenced by the indigenous music of Algeria and Egypt, and provide the sort of colour his orchestration can lack. With old age, Saint-Saëns’ music grew closer to Fauré’s in its resignation and austerity.
Himself: Saint-Saëns was a man of immense energy but physical weakness. For all his success, outspokenness and strength of will, he knew intense personal criticism and sorrow – not least in his short-lived marriage and the death of his mother. But Saint-Saëns had a cast-iron resolution that saw him through it all.
You can see Katia and Marielle Labèque perform Carnival of the Animals this Thursday at Queen Elizabeth Hall.