His memoir, Musical Memories, is full of sentences like this: "Oceans of ink have been spilled in discussing the question of whether the subjects of operas should be taken from history or mythology, and the question is still a mooted one." But beneath his clever turns of phrases is a first hand account of music and non musical history spanning from just after Beethoven's death to the 1920s. Think of it. Camille Saint-Saens lived long enough that he knew both Rossini and Stravinsky, experienced Napoleon and World War I, the hey-day of Opera and the beginning of movie music.
You can read his whole memoir for free here, but if you don't have time, we submit our top five favorite snippets for your approval.
5. Saint-Saëns on Rossini
To Saint-Saëns Rossini was a dying god, only half-content to be worshipped for his past accomplishments and very much aware that his reign had ended. Yet even in his latter days Rossini remained focused on the future of music, and comitted to helping new composers grow. Saint-Saëns was one of them. He writes,
He [Rossini] said to me one day,
“You have written a duet for a flute and clarinet for Dorus and Leroy. Won’t you ask them to play it at one of my evenings?”
The two great artists did not have to be urged. Then an unheard of thing happened. As he never had a written programme on such occasions, Rossini managed so that they believed that the duet was his own. It is easy to imagine the success of the piece under these conditions. When the encore was over, Rossini took me to the dining-room and made me sit near him, holding me by the hand so that I could not get away. A procession of fawning admirers passed in front of him. Ah! Master! What a masterpiece! Marvellous!
And when the victim had exhausted the resources of the language in praise, Rossini replied, quietly:
“I agree with you. But the duet wasn’t mine; it was written by this gentleman.”
Such kindness combined with such ingenuity tells more about the great man than many volumes of commentaries. For Rossini was a great man. The young people of to-day are in no position to judge his works, which were written, as he said himself, for singers and a public who no longer exist."
4. Saint-Saëns On Royalty
Saint-Saëns didn't just fraternize with musical royalty, but with actual heads of state. Often they were of the fairer sex and many of Saint-Saëns anecdotes paint him as a sort of queen-whisperer. A cynic might wonder how many of these tales are embellished, but that doesn't make them any less entertaining. As Camille-Saëns said himself, "History is made up of what probably happened; mythology of what probably did not happen. There are myths in history and history in myth."On Queen Christine of Spain:
Queen Christine expressed a desire to hear me play the organ, and they chose for this an excellent instrument made by Cavaillé-Coll in a church whose name I have forgotten. [..] Some great ladies lectured the indiscreet queen for daring to resort to a sacred place for any purpose besides taking part in divine services. The queen [...] responded by coming to the church not only not incognito, but in great state. [...] I was a little flustered when she asked me to play the too familiar melody from Samson et Dalila which begins Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix. [..] During the performance the Queen leaned her elbow on the keyboard of the organ, her chin resting on one hand and her eyes upturned. She seemed rapt in exstasy which, as may be imagined, was not precisely displeasing to the author.
3. Saint-Saëns on Victor Hugo
Saint-Saëns idolized Victor Hugo, but that didn't stop him from recognizing when his hero had some odd ideas.
"He believed in the most incredible things, as the “Man in the Iron Mask,” the twin brother of Louis XIV; in the octopus that has no mouth and feeds itself through its arms; and in the reality of the Japanese sirens which the Japanese were said to make out of an ape and a fish. He had some excuse for the sirens as the Académie des Sciences believed in them for a short time. "
2. Saint-Saëns on A-Tonality
Despite bearing witness to more modern music, Saint-Saëns was no fan. He held Debussy in disdain and after hearing the Rite of Spring, questioned Stravinsky's sanity. Here's what he had to say about the post-Wagner musical breakdown.
He did not foresee the a-tonic system, but that is what we have come to. There is no longer any question of adding to the old rules new principles which are the natural expression of time and experience, but simply of casting aside all rules and every restraint.
“Everyone ought to make his own rules. Music is free and unlimited in its liberty of expression. There are no perfect chords, dissonant chords or false chords. All aggregations of notes are legitimate.”
That is called, and they believe it, the development of taste.
He whose taste is developed by this system is not like the man who by tasting a wine can tell you its age and its vineyard, but he is rather like the fellow who with perfect indifference gulps down good or bad wine, brandy or whiskey, and prefers that which burns his gullet the most.
1. Saint-Saëns on the Bassoon
It is not entirely fair to say that Saint-Saëns detested the Rite of Spring for its tonality alone. A large part of his loathing stemmed from Stravinsky's overuse of the Bassoon. In fact Saint-Saëns had his own small vendetta against the instrument, as if writing too exciting a bassoon part was some vice, like eating too much chocolate or drinking before noon.
"I need not speak of his [Meyerbeer] immoderate love for the bassoon, an admirable instrument, but one which it is hardly prudent to abuse."